October 28, 2016

2016 Vocations Supplement

Conventual Franciscan friary in Terre Haute is ‘best of all worlds’

Conventual Franciscan Fathers Savio Manavalan and Mark Weaver and Conventual Franciscan transitional Deacon Mario Serrano stand in front of the doors of St. Joseph University Parish in Terre Haute, where all three serve. (Submitted photo)

Conventual Franciscan Fathers Savio Manavalan and Mark Weaver and Conventual Franciscan transitional Deacon Mario Serrano stand in front of the doors of St. Joseph University Parish in Terre Haute, where all three serve. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

Religious communities can often mirror a slice of society—members with different jobs, different backgrounds and different ethnicities.

Such a slice can be found even among the six Conventual Franciscans who live and serve in Terre Haute.

The Criterion interviewed two of the priests and one transitional deacon from that community. The three serve at St. Joseph University Parish. Among them are one American, one Indian and one American raised in the Mexican culture of his father’s family. They are three men of different generations, with different backgrounds, but the same strong love of their vocation.

Here are their stories.

‘I believe everyone has a call’

At 33, Deacon Mario Serrano is the youngest member of the community. He was born and raised in

New Mexico, but with the strong influence of his Mexican father, he considers himself Mexican-American.

He was first introduced to the Conventual Franciscans in the missionary parish of the small southwestern New Mexico town where he grew up.

“[The missionary priests] would go from one place to another,” he recalls. “I was always impressed by that.”

What Deacon Mario didn’t understand was the order of Franciscans who served his parish. For a time, it was priests of the Order of Friars Minor, who wear brown habits. For another part of his youth, it was the Conventual Franciscans, who wear habits of black, gray or varying shades of white.

“To me they were all Franciscans,” he says. “The ‘brown Franciscans’ have said to me, ‘When will you come back to us? We formed your vocation!’ ”

He is currently living out that vocation serving as the parish’s university minister, serving the students primarily of Indiana State University and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, both in Terre Haute, and also Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in nearby St. Mary-of-the-Woods and Ivy Tech Community College in Terre Haute.

“I joke that I went through college and stayed there,” says Deacon Mario.

With six years of experience in campus ministry, the deacon has found joy in serving those at the college level.

“They are discerning where God is calling them,” he explains. “I believe everyone has a call. I’m there to help them discover what God is calling them to be, not necessarily to be Franciscans but to become themselves.”

On Nov. 4, Deacon Mario will become who he feels he is called to be: an ordained Conventual Franciscan priest. The ordination will take place in El Paso, Texas.

‘Every day, I’m learning something new’

Father Savio Manavalan, associate pastor of St. Joseph University Parish, has been a priest for nearly three years. Like Deacon Mario, he was confused about Franciscan orders as a youth growing up in India.

“The [Franciscan order of] Capuchins have a good presence in India, especially in my state,” he says. “I used to see them, I went to their retreats. I joined the Franciscans, and then I learned the different orders!”

Living in Indiana has been a learning experience for Father Savio, 34. One major difference between India and Indiana is the climate.

“We don’t have a fall or spring climate, just months of heavy rain, summer and the time we don’t have rain,” he says.

But just as much of a transition for him was the Mass. In India, Father Savio grew up with and learned to celebrate in the Syro-Malabar tradition. Syro-Malabar is an Eastern Catholic Church and liturgical rite tracing its origins to the Apostle Thomas in the first century.

He had experience celebrating the Latin Rite Mass at a convent while serving for 10 months in India. But it’s still not the same, says Father Savio.

“When I came here, [the Latin Rite] was very new to me,” he recalls. “I hadn’t done any weddings or baptisms. For almost a year, I was studying and learning more about the faith and what we do differently. But I was happy to have more experiences in my life.”

The other priests in the community have been instrumental in that learning process, says Father Savio.

“All the other friars helped me a lot,” he says. “I studied from them how to live in a parish, because in India it was more missions.

“Every day, I’m learning something new.”

‘I knew I wanted to be like them’

Like Father Savio and Deacon Mario, 65-year-old Father Mark Weaver did not know of the various Franciscan orders when he was growing up on a farm in Ohio.

At the church where he worshipped, there was “a young priest who always was bringing seminarians with him,” says Father Mark, pastor of St. Joseph University Parish. “They seemed like nice guys. Thinking over what kind a priest I wanted to be, I knew I wanted to be like them. But I didn’t know the distinction of what kind of Franciscans there were.”

At the age of 14, he entered the former minor seminary of the Conventual Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Consolation in Mount St. Francis. He was ordained in 1977 at the age of 25.

Over the course of his 39 years as a priest, he has served in California and at three parishes in Indiana—two in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and one in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

But his priesthood has not been confined to the states. For 25 years, from 1979-2004, Father Mark ministered in Central America. He spent 16 years in Honduras and nine years in El Salvador.

“Most of the time I was not with another English speaker,” he says. “It was a big cultural and linguistic change and challenge for me.”

But having a multicultural experience has proven advantageous to the priest, who serves in a parish with “a lot of different cultures.

“I counted a couple of years ago, and our parish has people born in at least 25 countries,” he says. “It’s a parish with a spirit of welcome and openness, even though it is predominantly Anglo.”

And it was Father Mark’s multicultural experience that led to the placement of Father Savio in Terre Haute.

“When there was a possibility of an Indian priest, the province thought [that with] my experience of living in a different culture and the parish having cultural variety, it would be an excellent place for him.”

‘The best of all worlds’

With members of such varying backgrounds, the friary in Terre Haute is “the best of all worlds,” says Deacon Mario.

“It’s a way we can give witness to the Church and our society, because we are not only an intercultural community but also intergenerational,” he says, noting that the friars range in ages from 33-79. “We can see the wisdom of the older friars and those simply beginning.”

Father Savio also appreciates the variation of ages in the friary.

“In India, the oldest friar was maybe 60 or 65,” he says. “We didn’t have a generation that had passed through all of their religious life and all their wonderful experience.”

He and Deacon Mario try to share their cultural and faith backgrounds with the other friars and with the faith community in Terre Haute. Deacon Mario has assisted at bilingual Masses and enjoys answering questions about his culture, such as the Mexican “Day of the Dead” holiday.

As for Father Savio, he says that since “the day I came here [two years ago], the parish was asking for Mass in my mother tongue and [the Syro-Malabar] Rite.”

He finally celebrated such a Mass at St. Joseph University Church in this rite in August.

“We had 150 people. I expected 50-60. … It was a good experience. They asked me to do more in the coming years.”

In a society seeming to become more divided and divisive, Deacon Mario sees the multicultural, multigenerational Conventual Franciscan friary in

Terre Haute as “an alternative way, as St. Francis of Assisi was doing at his time. Within the Church, there was a crusade, but he focused on relating with each other.

“We strive to do that today. It’s living out our charism, living out our brotherhood, and that experience spreads into our ministry and those we come in contact with.”

(For more information on the Conventual Franciscans of the Our Lady of Consolation Province, headquartered in Mount St. Francis, visit www.franciscansusa.org.)

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