The Monks of Manhattan – by B.A. Van Sise

Father Sebastian (original name: Tomasz Kajko)  of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a cloistered group of monks in Spanish Harlem, swings incense during early morning mass for his fellow friars at the St. Joseph's Friary on 142nd Street, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

Father Sebastian (original name: Tomasz Kajko) of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a cloistered group of monks in Spanish Harlem, swings incense during early morning mass for his fellow friars at the St. Joseph’s Friary on 142nd Street, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon, and for the twenty-fifth time today there’s a face looking in the window again.

At the St. Joseph’s Friary on 142nd Street, it’s a familiar sight. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a cloistered group of Capuchin monks who set up in a brownstone here some fifteen years ago, leave their modern monastery open daily for the neighborhood’s needy, of which many take advantage, showing up to ring the bell dozens of times a day.

The Franciscan Friars, for their part, are consistent as well: they sleep on the floor of their beautiful old brownstone, sometimes without heat or hot water, and while a regular sight on the streets of West Harlem, are largely unknown anywhere else. The often barefoot friars, who take vows of chastity, poverty, and for half of their every day, silence, seem to live for only two things: to pray and to feed.

A Franciscan Friar of the Renewal walks barefoot, as is their custom, through the private gardens of the St. Joseph's Friary on 142nd Street, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

A Franciscan Friar of the Renewal walks barefoot, as is their custom, through the private gardens of the St. Joseph’s Friary on 142nd Street, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

Friars prepare their ceremonial garments before celebrating one of the six daily masses they provide for their fellow monks, at the St. Joseph's Friary on 142nd Street, Thursday, October 19th, 2017.

Friars prepare their ceremonial garments before celebrating one of the six daily masses they provide for their fellow monks, at the St. Joseph’s Friary on 142nd Street, Thursday, October 19th, 2017.

And pray and feed they do. They conduct more than forty prayer sessions and masses amongst themselves every week, and Franciscan nuns and members of the Sisters of Life stop by regularly to seek and share guidance. Meanwhile, a constant stream of faces turn up at the door, usually asking for a sandwich or, occasionally, help with a utility bill. Once a week, the monastery opens its doors to all who might come, usually feeding roughly eighty hungry neighborhood types in a large communal meal- which they call a “St. Joseph’s Table,” where those dozens of down-on-their-luck Broadway locals share a meal elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of medieval-looking friars.

Sister Mary Gabriel of the Sisters of Life visits the St. Joseph's Friary on 142nd Street, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

Sister Mary Gabriel of the Sisters of Life visits the St. Joseph’s Friary on 142nd Street, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

Father Stephen (original name: Stephen Dufrene)  of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a cloistered group of monks in Spanish Harlem, reads the Bible to neighborhood hungry gathered at St. Joseph's Friary on 142nd Street for the friars' weekly meal, Thursday, October 19th, 2017.

Father Stephen (original name: Stephen Dufrene) of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a cloistered group of monks in Spanish Harlem, reads the Bible to neighborhood hungry gathered at St. Joseph’s Friary on 142nd Street for the friars’ weekly meal, Thursday, October 19th, 2017.

It’s a distinctly New York affair: of the sixteen friars, eight in habits and the same number in training, only one was born in the metro area. The groceries that stock their impressive kitchen are completely donated: the Fairway chain gives them all of yesterday’s produce, which is supplanted by gifts from city parishes, local businesses, private patrons, and Dunkin Donuts.

Father Stephen (original name: Stephen Dufrene)  of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a cloistered group of monks in Spanish Harlem, checks the icebox at the St. Joseph's Friary on 142nd Street while helping his fellow friars prepare their weekly meal for several dozen of the neighborhood's hungry, Thursday, October 19th, 2017.

Father Stephen (original name: Stephen Dufrene) of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a cloistered group of monks in Spanish Harlem, checks the icebox at the St. Joseph’s Friary on 142nd Street while helping his fellow friars prepare their weekly meal for several dozen of the neighborhood’s hungry, Thursday, October 19th, 2017.

It’s old world Catholicism modified for modern city life: Addeo’s, the famed Arthur Avenue bakery, gives them their daily bread, and bars on the accessible windows prevent the friars from having to forgive those that trespass against them.

Most of the friars, with their host of international accents, have similar stories to one another: two typical friars, Fathers Sebastian and Emmanuel, were born Tomasz Kajko and Barry Mansford in Poland and England, respectively, and like most of the Harlem friars decided in their late teens to give up jobs and girlfriends for a life of constant prayer and unsold Munchkins.

Father Emmanuel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal poses in the garden of the St. Joseph's Friary, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

Father Emmanuel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal poses in the garden of the St. Joseph’s Friary, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

Today, they’re kept busy making meals, praying, and studying theology– beginning, ending, and filling every day with the psalms.

And as for the locals who ring the bell, and press their faces against the window?

Father Glenn, the cofounder of the order and one of the very few to keep his birth name, makes a stack of sandwiches and a cup of coffee before he sets towards the door. “Jesus says if you’ve done it to the least of us, you’ve done it unto me,” he says reaching for the knob, “so for me, this is all money in the bank.”

Father Glenn Sudano of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a cloistered group of monks in Spanish Harlem, answers the door to a beggar looking for food at the St. Joseph's Friary on 142nd Street, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

Father Glenn Sudano of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a cloistered group of monks in Spanish Harlem, answers the door to a beggar looking for food at the St. Joseph’s Friary on 142nd Street, Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.

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