Fr. Pierre Ducharme and Br. Benjamin Ripley are two of the new breed of Franciscans bringing life to the order in Western Canada.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Fr. Pierre Ducharme and Br. Benjamin Ripley are two of the new breed of Franciscans bringing life to the order in Western Canada.

February 9, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

About a decade ago, Pierre Ducharme came to Edmonton from Vancouver to study theology at Newman Theological College. He wanted to go into ministry as a layperson.

Through Newman, he met local members of the Franciscan order and ended up becoming a Franciscan. Today, he wears the brown habit, which has been the symbol of the Franciscans for more than 800 years.

"I wasn't looking for a religious community but as I got to know them I found a community in which I felt that I belonged," Ducharme said in an interview. "Everything just seemed to line up for me. It seemed to make sense for me to become a Franciscan."

He made his solemn vows in 2010 and was ordained a priest in 2011. Today, at the age of 37, Ducharme is the leader of the Franciscans in the Edmonton Archdiocese.

"I'm the guardian of the house," he explains. "St. Francis, our founder, didn't like to use the word 'superior.' In local houses he appointed people and he called them guardians. It is a more affectionate term."

He has nine people in the house, 8106 Jasper Ave., including two young friars who were supposed to arrive from India Feb. 11.

It's not that the Franciscans are recruiting in India because of a lack of vocations here. On the contrary, they have had a steady influx of vocations for the last 10 years. Currently, five men are at various levels of formation in the U.S. and in Victoria who will eventually come to the Edmonton house.

What they want, though, is to become ethnically diverse in order to engage an ethnically diverse Canadian society.

The current Franciscan membership in Western Canada is almost 100 per cent of European origin. So as well as bringing in friars from India, the Franciscans may import friars from Vietnam and other Asian countries.

All together there are 110 Franciscan friars in Canada and 14,000 worldwide.

At the house with Ducharme Jan. 30 was Brother Benjamin Ripley, a 40-year-old convert and former radar operator with the Canadian Navy, who decided to join the Franciscans soon after becoming a Catholic in Victoria in 2006.

Consecrated Life

Feeling a call to serve the Church, Ripley left the Navy in 2007 after 10 years and started to discern what order would best suit him. He came across the Franciscans' website and began a dialogue with the order in Edmonton.

"I was most impressed by the Franciscan charism of service to the poor and the marginalized," Ripley said. "That struck a chord within me so I made the decision in 2009 to enter the order. It has been a great process ever since."

Ripley's vocation is to be a brother so he is not seeking ordination. However, he hopes his vocation leads him to similar areas as a priest. "After all, I'm taking education similar to a priest."

Ripley is taking his master of divinity at Newman College and has about three years of study left. He hopes to make his solemn vows in August. Currently he assists at Lurana Shelter for Women and leads a group of secular Franciscans in Sherwood Park. He hopes to serve as an inner city or prison chaplain in the future.

POPULAR IN EVERY ERA

Ducharme is optimistic about the future and says his order will always get vocations "simply because we have St. Francis of Assisi who has been popular in every time and who rooted us in a charism that nobody can challenge and that is the Gospel.

"We are called to live the Gospel and that's a clear and holistic mandate. It's a high bar but it's also one that I believe every Christian is called to. So I'm confident and hopeful about the future of the order in Canada and in every region of the world."

That hope is in part sustained by "what's going on with Pope Francis," clarified Ducharme.

"Pope Francis certainly is (steering the Church) in a new direction and he certainly believes in it. He took the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, our founder. He had our hearts right away when he did that, and it quickly became evident that he sincerely tries to emulate our founder."

UNIQUE HABIT

Another factor that helps attract young people to the Franciscans is their habit, a symbol of unity.

"I think young people today are drawn to a clear sense of identity," Ducharme said. "So the fact that we wear a habit is something that appeals to young people.

"I'm always cautious, though, of this idea that it's all about the habit. We put on the habit because we believe in what it stands for but we are not defined by the habit."

St. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans in 1209. "We have a rich history; we are an old order," Ducharme noted. "The charism of the Franciscan order is to preach the Gospel by living authentic lives in community and witnessing to the way we live through our vows, which are rooted in the Acts of the Apostles."

The order has adapted its mission to the needs of the Church "with a particular sensitivity to the vulnerable and those that are neglected."

The first Franciscans arrived in Canada 400 years ago in 1615 with Samuel de Champlain, a French navigator, cartographer and soldier who founded New France and Quebec City in 1608.

Although the Franciscans were twice either kicked out of Canada or prevented from getting vocations, they came back to stay in the 19th century.

They have been in the Edmonton Archdiocese since 1908 when they founded their first mission in Western Canada in Lamoureux, near Fort Saskatchewan.

DIVERSE MINISTRIES

"The friars began by doing parish ministry out here and very quickly founded a college in north Edmonton, which was to reach out to the youth," Ducharme said. "But we also sent guys in those early years to work in the Japanese internment camps in British Columbia, and they founded a couple of retreat centres as well."

The order grew quickly and soon had parishes throughout the interior of British Columbia.

In Edmonton they ran the now-defunct St. Anthony's College and St. Francis Parish. Ten years ago when they sold the old college the parish also closed.

The order then moved its friary to Jasper Avenue and its provincial office to Cochrane. It had a total of 14 friars, who were soon dispersed across the West to boost other communities.

However, the order continues its long involvement in the ministry of teaching at Newman College, where they still have two professors – Fathers Don MacDonald and David Norman.

For his part, Ducharme does formation with new friars and works at the Grey Nuns Hospital as a Catholic chaplain.

The Franciscans also have two friars in parish ministry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sherwood Park.