Following the Heart of St. Francis of Assisi


Susan Hardy, OFS, from the town of Merrill, says that is what comes to mind when she thinks about what it means to be a Secular Franciscan.

“It’s love in our actions. It’s love for our Rosary,” she says. “We don’t do anything just to do it. We do it for others out of love for God and love for other people. Everything is done in love.”

“It’s our heart. Francis led with his heart,” says Lynette Dobbs, OFS, of Littleton.

Susan and Lynette are among the seven professed members of the Heart of St. Francis Fraternity, which was canonically established during a ceremony held at St. Mary of the Visitation Church in Houlton on Sunday, October 23. The new Franciscan fraternity is the sixth in the state but the only one north of Waterville.

“It really marked a milestone for us in our growth as Franciscans, and I was really caught off guard by how much the ceremony impacted me,” says Sonja Burleigh, OFS. “It really did show me that this is a big deal. We have worked hard to have reached this point.”

“It was a challenge, but I think that helped form us in doing the correct things and living the way that we should live as Franciscans,” says Deacon Albert Burleigh, Sonja’s husband. “It will be nice to see where it leads us.”

The journey towards becoming an established fraternity began about a decade ago. That is when Lynette committed herself to the Secular Franciscan Order, becoming a member of the St. John the Baptist Fraternity in Waterville. While she regularly made the 180-mile trip to participate in meetings and retreats there, her desire for Franciscan fellowship closer to home led a priest to recommend the formation of a Friends of St. Francis group at St. Mary of the Visitation. As the group grew, the idea of establishing a new fraternity took hold.

“They spent about six years establishing their fraternity. It was a long process,” says Dan Spofford, a member of the St. John the Baptist Fraternity and District 3 counselor for the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Region, which includes fraternities throughout northern New England and parts of Massachusetts. “They had to come down to our fraternity and attend regional retreats. There were also trips up there from us.”

“They’re called pastoral and fraternal visitations,” explains Lynette. “It’s a lot of getting to know us.”

Secular Franciscans are laypeople who are committed to bringing the Gospel to life in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. The roots of the worldwide order go back more than 800 years to St. Francis himself.

“To me, it’s all about living in the footsteps of Jesus in the same manner that St. Francis did. He made Christ everything. He saw Christ in everyone and in everything he encountered. That was the center of his life and that is what we all should be doing — making Christ the center, but to do it alone is very difficult,” says Lynette.

“We root ourselves in the Gospel and in bringing the Gospel to people in a very simple way, by the witness of our lives, just like St. Francis did,” says Dan.

Lynette Dobbs signs documents establishing the Heart of St. Francis Fraternity

Dan and members of the Heart of St. Francis Fraternity say it is the simplicity of the Franciscan way of life that most appealed to them.

“When we found this Franciscan way of life it was like, ‘Yes, that makes sense to us because that is who we are,’” says Sonja. “We both live a very simple way of life. I call it a nonmaterialistic way of living. We have some things, but if we don’t have them, that’s OK, too.”

“It’s a lifestyle that we are the least,” says Joanne MacGillivray, OFS. “If you’re not boisterous or if you’re meek and mild as St. Francis was and take that point of view, people will migrate to that. People will migrate to you, to your way of thinking, and that’s a good place to be. I am not always successful at it. I work in the corporate world, and that can sometimes be challenging, but it’s just having that frame of mind that I am the least, Lord.”

“If you think about Franciscans, we care for creation. We serve others. We look for the good in others. We’re welcoming people. We’re prayerful people. We’re penitents,” says Dan. “The Secular Franciscans are very down-to-earth and just loving of people. That’s what attracted me.”

Secular Franciscans follow the rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, which calls them to encounter the living and active person of Christ in Scripture, in the Church, and in their brothers and sisters. They look for ways to embrace the Gospel in their everyday lives and to try to help others do the same.

“With the Franciscans, the difference is living the Gospel life in the world, a lot of times with our actions, rather than by the words. Some Franciscans preach very well, and we all have our own gifts, but it’s recognizing the beauty in all individuals and being there to serve,” says Lynette. “We tend more to work towards peace and justice in the Franciscan way, which is more dialogue with people.”

“It is not necessarily our words, which we learned from St. Francis, it’s our actions. The actions do speak louder than words, and if our actions can positively affect someone else, then what better way is there?” says Susan.

“I think what I feel within myself is a love for people and an opportunity to help and to be fair,” says Bernadette Willette, of Linneus, who is currently in the inquiry stage of discernment. “I’m a counselor and a clinical therapist, and so, I am in the helping professions. I look for certain things, and this seemed to be something that really appealed to me. I’m all about justice, making sure that inequities are taken care of if I can.”

Members of the Heart of St. Francis Fraternity serve the Church and community in many ways. The fraternity has a bereavement apostolate, reaching out to people who have lost loved ones. Fraternity members contribute to Mildred’s Food Pantry and towards Christmas food baskets. Every fall and winter, there is also the Blue Can Electric Project — donation cans that are put out to raise money to help people pay electric bills.

Individual members are also engaged in their community. Lynette, for instance, is the coordinator of the Cross Resource Café, which connects people with local services. Sonja, who was a special education teacher for 40 years, enjoys making hats and mittens for schoolchildren and quilts for nursing home residents. Deacon Albert spends time visiting with people in nursing homes.

“The part of the diaconate that he really loves is being with the people and hearing their stories and giving them comfort,” Sonja says.

In addition to reaching out to others, these Secular Franciscans say they receive a lot of support from one another. The fraternity members gather the first Saturday of every month for fellowship and spiritual enrichment.

“We have ongoing formation during the gathering because we all need to be fed. We all need to learn,” says Lynette. “It’s helping one another on the journey. We know the importance of that. I love when people say, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy enough.’ Well, you’re in the right place because Franciscans know they are sinners. There is no question, and we need one another on the journey towards holiness.”

“At our gatherings, I have never, ever had a greater sense of peace and family and trust,” says Susan. “It’s hard to explain the feeling that you get when you are there. It’s a part of your soul that only being there can fill.”

“We spend time in reflection together and questioning aloud, so there is a sense of community, but there is also a sense of trust and faith,” says Bernadette.

The fraternity hopes to continue to increase its membership, not only by sharing Franciscan spirituality with parishioners of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish but by reaching out to people throughout Aroostook County.

“If there are others out there who like the Franciscan way, we can broaden that out for them and give them a home,” says Sonja. “I think we want to offer to them what we have found in this group — that sense of community, that sense of Franciscan life, and the peace and joy that it brings us.”