WILMINGTON – The Franciscan Friars of the Holy Name Province, who currently staff two parishes in the city of Wilmington, will be leaving the diocese in the near future as part of a restructuring. The news was confirmed Monday afternoon by a provincial spokesperson.
The parishes that will be affected are both in Wilmington: St. Joseph’s on French Street, and St. Paul’s. The Franciscans will remain at the parishes until this summer, when ministerial duties and administrative responsibilities will be turned over to the Diocese of Wilmington, according to the province. The leaders of Holy Name Province cited a declining friar population that makes it difficult to staff all of its missions and to maintain a core component of the Franciscan Order, which is living and ministering together in community.
“This was a deliberate, measured and comprehensive process that consisted of dozens of meeting and site visits, and dialogue with all interested parties, which generated studies and reports that ultimately helped guide the Provincial Council’s final decisions on the Fraternities-in-Mission where friars would remain, and those where they would be withdrawn,” said Father Kevin Mullen, provincial minister of Holy Name Province, in a statement.
The province is based in New York City and is the largest Order of Friars Minor in the United States. Currently, the province has a little fewer than 300 members. In 1985, that number was 708, and as recently as 2001, it was 443. Just three friars have processed solemn vows since August 2018.
Father Mullen said the province’s friars have been “spread too thin” for some time. Fraternal life is central to their vocation, and these withdrawals will allow them to more effectively serve their ministries.
Bishop Malooly said he was sad to see the Franciscans leave the diocese, “but I’m delighted that we had a great experience during those years. We’ll just have to move ahead in the best way that we can to take care of St. Paul’s Parish and also St. Joe’s on French Street.
“They’ve done great ministry. I’ll miss the priests. We always had good priests here.”
The priests and brothers, members of the Order of Friars Minor, have been at St. Joseph’s Parish on French Street in Wilmington since 1993. The current pastor, Father Paul Williams, arrived in the diocese in 2013. He is just the third friar to be pastor at St. Joe’s. Father Barry Langley, assisted by Brother David Schlatter, was the pastor from 1993-2005, when he was succeeded by Father John Frambes.
The parish was established in 1889 by Bishop Alfred A. Curtis to minister to the African-American community, which was segregated from white parishioners in other churches by Delaware’s Jim Crow laws. It was run by Josephite priests for more than a century, until 1993.
Franciscans served at St. Paul’s as far back as 1980, but initially they were members of the Third Order Regular, not the Order of Friars Minor. The OFMs have had a presence at the parish for 29 years. The current pastor is Father Rodolfo Ramon, and he is assisted by Father Paul Breslin.
In addition, St. Paul’s was the home of the provincial novitiate from 1999-2013, with many Franciscans training for lives as priests and brothers. Holy Name Province also had a service program for recent college graduates based at the parish, and the Franciscans used to operate an urban ministry center in downtown Wilmington.
According to a 2015 article on the provincial website, the friars brought new traditions to St. Paul’s and the community, including living Stations of the Cross, ministries to immigrants and homeless, and work to end violence in the neighborhood.
Father Mullen said the province is grateful to the “good and faith-filled parishioners of St. Paul and St. Joseph for the support, collaboration, generosity and warm embrace” extended to the friars for the past three decades.
“We are confident that we are leaving them stronger and more robust than when we first arrived,” he said. He added that the transition to diocesan administration would be seamless.
Bishop Malooly said the diocese has six months to determine the next steps for St. Joe’s and St. Paul’s.
“It will be right around the same time we do our other appointments,” he said.
The Wilmington parishes are two of 10 Fraternity-in-Mission sites from which the Franciscans will withdraw this summer. The others are in South Carolina, Georgia, New York City, Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey. Of the eight, seven will be turned over to their respective dioceses, the province said, while the other, a mall ministry in Colonie, N.Y., will be closed permanently.
Holy Name Province has friars in a number of states, as well as missions in South America and Asia.
St. Joseph’s and St. Paul’s are the second and third parishes in the diocese in the past year that will no longer be staffed by a religious order. Last June, the Redemptorist Fathers left Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Seaford after nearly a half-century, citing dwindling numbers of priests and increasing responsibilities.
The Oblates of St. Francis de Sales provide priests for St. Anthony of Padua in Wilmington, Immaculate Conception in Elkton, Md., and St. Thomas More Oratory in Newark.