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Extraordinary People - the Friars of NY

Recently I had the pleasure of joining my daughters in NYC for one of their more unique performances, where they played for a packed house at Catholic Underground, which is hosted by the Franciscan Friars of Renewal at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Manhattan. Normally we would stay in a hotel, but we were invited to stay at the friary, where we got a chance to get to know our hosts and get a taste of their humble but incredibly hospitable and gracious lifestyle.

I had the opportunity to interview two of the friars, Br Mark-Mary (far right in the picture above) and Br Malachy (center, in the back), and gained a peek into their extraordinary world and how they found their callings.

One of the rooms we stayed in at the friary.

Prayer schedule on a card in each room.

Super fun video of the friars playing basketball and rapping.

Br. Malachy, where did you grow up, and what was your family like?

I was born in Augusta, Georgia, my parents named me Larry, and I grew up in a large family with very religious parents. They both had experienced deep conversions in their lives through a movement called the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I am the second of eight kids in my family; the first six were boys and last two were girls. The boys in my family were pretty wild and adventurous, so my childhood was filled with a lot of camouflage, tree forts, backyard wars and anything sports and outdoors you could do. We grew up hunting, fishing, camping - all the good redneck activities a southern boy should be involved in.

One great blessing was that my Dad was with us, teaching us, and leading some of our crazy adventures, like having bottle rocket wars on the 4th of July! Mom wasn’t so happy about that one, especially when one blew up under my youngest brother's bare foot (shoes were somewhat optional in the summer time). My mom was such a gift to us as well, with her faithful presence over so many years of loving service (tons of laundry and food) and more importantly, her spiritual impact. I can remember her and my Father leading us in family prayers and each night both of them blessing us and her kissing us goodnight. There were plenty of struggles with a large family, and I know it was a great sacrifice for my parents to have us all and raise us well, but I am grateful to God for them both and for my siblings.

Your teenage years took a dark turn into drugs and alcohol. How did you go from that to becoming a friar?

Even with all the blessings of my family life growing up, the teenage years were really tough for me. I wanted to know who I was, and I looked to others around me for the answer. A number of my friends got into the whole partying scene, and since I didn’t want to be left out, and it seemed like they all were having fun, I joined in. In high school you have to choose who your group is going to be, and I landed with the “skater-punk” crew. Since I wanted an identity, I went all in! I got the DC shoes, the punk-rock band t-shirts, the baggy jeans, chain necklaces and wallet chains, and of course I went everywhere on my skate board.

Unfortunately that road led to me being expelled from school because of problems related to drugs, which had become a part of my life. As I neared the end of high school I realized that I wasn’t as angry at the world as many of my punk-rocker friends were, and I didn’t like to fight all the time. So I made a big switch and jumped over to the hippy crowd. Since I was all in, I traded skater shoes for Chaco sandals, got tie-dye t-shirts, hemp necklaces, and I always had my hacky-sack with me. I was a new man! So I thought… The reality was that I was still searching for the answer to the question of who I was and all the outside trappings of a new look left me unsatisfied. So I tried to fill the void inside with more drugs and one relationship after another.

As I transitioned into college, I was living at home and my folks only made one request of me – that I go to Mass on Sundays. Free room and board for an hour a week investment seemed reasonable to me, and truth be told, I knew there was something to the whole God thing that I didn’t want to let go of completely. At one of those Sunday Masses I remember several seminarians got up before the final blessing to share their stories of how God had called them to be a priest. As one of them was speaking (and I was standing in the back annoyed at the delay on Mass ending) I heard in my heart a clear question, “Larry, would you be willing to be a priest for me, too?” It was so startling that I looked around for a moment and then I tried to shake it off, but it returned again to my thoughts. At that point I was freaked out and walked out early, jumped in my car, and drove away saying out loud, “I don’t know what that’s all about, but if that’s you God, I don’t want anything to do with you!”