Area man talks about life in a hood

Amy Kotlarz/Catholic Courier    |    01.11.2008
Category: Features


They have been called the hoods in the ’hood, or the monks who play punk. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who are clad in gray hooded robes, long beards and sandals, stand out as they serve the poorest people in urban communities such as the Bronx.
 
But their service isn’t limited to the poor. They also reach out to hordes of young people by hosting events such as Catholic Underground, which is half rock concert and half worship.
 
During a break in a Nov. 10 day of prayer and teaching he was leading at St. Leo Parish in Hilton, Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Anthony Baetzold acknowledged that life in the Bronx is a world away from his native Greece and Hilton. The former David Baetzold grew up in St. Lawrence Parish in Greece as well as St. Leo; he took the name Anthony upon entering the community in 1996.
 
The people in need in his adopted neighborhood are under constant tension and pressure of trying to eke out a living in a large city, he said. Most of his neighbors give Grayfriars such as himself respect. “People are very respectful of you because they know you are not earning very much and you are helping the people in the neighborhood,” Father Baetzold said during his brief visit home, which also included a Nov. 9 concert at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
 
In attendance at the Hilton retreat were his parents, who now live in Albion. They said they initially had been surprised that their son was drawn to the priesthood and the life of a friar, especially since he had been enrolled in a pre-med program.
 
His mother, Gail Baetzold, recalled that her opinion changed after visiting her youngest son at his community. “The most important thing is that he is so happy,” she said. “He is so joyful. He is where God wants him to be.”
 
His father, Roger Baetzold, said he was struck by the poverty of the South Bronx on the day he dropped off his son. However, he spoke with a priest as they were leaving, and the priest helped to reassure him that his son was making the right decision.
 
“I can’t say enough good about (the friars),” Roger Baetzold said. “They support each other, and they live traditional, authentic Franciscan lives and values. The lay people love them, and the lay people donate lots of food that they in turn turn over to the poor.”
 
Although he has always been connected to religion, Father Baetzold said he didn’t consider himself devout growing up. He described himself as an average kid trying to fit into the world.
 
“When I was 21, I had a powerful experience of God, which kind of changed my life greatly — turned my life upside down,” said Father Baetzold, who is now 37.
 
He drew a parallel to St. Francis’ own powerful religious conversion, in which the future saint felt compelled by God to embrace a leper. Father Baetzold said he began to feel called to a simple lifestyle, even though he was in the process of earning his doctorate in biochemistry and working as a clinical researcher for chemical companies such as Merck. He thought a simple, religious lifestyle was impossible.
 
“I never thought I would end up that way,” Father Baetzold said. “I thought I would be married and have a family.” Yet when he was introduced to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, he found people living the simple life he sought. In following the examples of St. Francis and Capuchin stigmatist St. Padre Pio, the friars embrace poverty, wear the traditional Franciscan dress and help the poor.
 
Father Baetzold entered the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in 1996 and was ordained in 2005.
 
“We are normal people who love to have a good time,” he said. “We share the same desires of wanting to love God and live peacefully and wanting to love the poor with whom we live.”
 
Though helping the poor is the community’s first goal, its second is evangelization of young people. That’s why the friars have plugged into music that speaks to young people today: contemporary rock, hip-hop, rap, funk, jazz and punk music, said Father Baetzold, who plays the guitar and accordion. Many of the brothers who play in the order’s house bands are already musically gifted when they enter, he said.
 
“The brothers have a house band, but we don’t consider ourselves a band,” Father Baetzold said. “We are a religious community.” The community is one of the few nationwide that has attracted many young male religious. The average age of those in the community is younger than 35, he said. The community has a six-month postulancy and a yearlong novitiate. After that, the newly professed live as brothers for at least a year. Those called to the priesthood continue with studies in the seminary. Friars usually wait about five years before professing perpetual vows.
 
In addition to Catholic Underground, a three-hour event that includes eucharistic adoration, prayer, discussion and performances by the friars and guest artists, the friars’ other ministries include a free medical clinic, a home for the Latino community, a homeless shelter, housing for formerly homeless men, a food pantry, a neighborhood youth-outreach center and a meals outreach.
 
It is this outreach that continues to inspire and draw young people, according to two young volunteers at the Nov. 10 retreat in Hilton. Two nurses, Marianne Messirek of Austria and Eva Maria Perez Simon, a native of Spain now living in London, said seeing the friars in action was inspirational. Messirek, who also volunteered in the friars’ medical clinic for three months, said the friars sleep on the floor every day and wear sandals and robes year round, regardless of the weather. She said they are constantly helping others.
 
“They live love,” she said.

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