A Friar In New York

By Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Meet Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Fr. Steven Patti was born in Boston and grew up in nearby Burlington, MA. He joined the friars in 1994 after having served for a year as a volunteer at St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen in Philadelphia staffed by Franciscan Friars. He was ordained in 2001 and has served in Wilmington, DE; Durham NC (at Immaculate Conception); Providence RI; and at the St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia.

Steve is a fan of all the Boston sports teams. He is an avid reader of fiction, history, poetry, and spirituality/theology, and also likes to go to the movies, and to visit art museums. When he gets the chance, he loves to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with family and friends, and to spend time at his family’s lake house near the New Hampshire/Maine border.

An Invitation Into 
A Spacious World

May 1, 2021

Walking in the city these days, and the crowds are up, especially on weekends, and especially in the neighborhoods in and around Greenwich Village, as people begin to crowd restaurants and there is a general sense of relief that these days of pandemic are finally coming to a close. Still many people masked, which is good, and I suspect that will last for a while, that there won’t be an “off-on” switch from pandemic to post-pandemic. This has been too deep and too life-altering. But on these days of warm weather and bright sunshine, a reflecting sun off the calm waters of the Hudson, off the tops of the Art Deco buildings lining midtown avenues, off the Flatiron Building with its scaffolding – in all this, it seems like some kind of grace is finally beginning to shine on everyday life, and in May especially with its emerging colors and light and sun.
And so walking in all this…breathing seems easier, the light seems lighter, and it all feels like an emergence from something we have not known in our lives. I read from Ellen Davis’s book “Opening Israel’s Scriptures” a reflection on the word “salvation”, as she writes that it means “to be capacious or make spacious. Thus the dynamic of salvation might be viewed as giving breadth for existence…the state of salvation is the opposite of being in straits…contrary to much popular religious wisdom, the God-fearing life is not a matter of walking the straight and narrow.

Rather, the scriptures invite us into a spacious world, the new world of the Bible…the main business of the Bible is to challenge our ordinary conception of ‘how things really are’ – to call into question the necessity and even the reality of the limits we impose upon ourselves and others, to show us that the cramped conditions of human existence are most of then the result of misplaced fear or desire.” (Davis, p. 6-7, p.s. she teaches at Duke). I could read that over and over, its hopeful and forward-looking image of salvation as capacious, as widening our worlds, as “giving breadth for existence.” Maybe that’s what these days feel like.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

The Grace of Encounter

May 1, 2021

One morning in the lower church and I have two chairs set up facing each other, and I am there with my New Testament and book of reflections on St. Francis of Assisi and waiting to see who might come in on this day for confession or, in many cases, just to talk. That’s what I like about the chair set-up.

It’s all in the listening, and a man comes out of the nearby chapel, scans the waiting area, sees me, and comes over and sits down. And this is where the grace of ministry comes in, especially in a city as busy as New York. So much anxiety and tension and pressure out there. And this lower church space becomes a kind of respite.

What does he tell me: he is from Nigeria, he just lost a cousin over there, he is worried about the terror group Boko Haram. He lives in Brooklyn. He lost his job and is looking for a new job. I listen. He just needs to talk it out. He says to me, I’ve seen you around here, and this tells me that maybe after eight months here people are beginning to know me.

It’s an encounter, and it’s not formal, not formally sacramental, but there is something I love about this kind of ministry, which is, just tell me some things, come into the quiet church and talk about your particular life. What gets revealed is humanity, and so much in our culture today seems to diminish our humanity. It’s two chairs. It’s old statues. It’s a quiet nearby chapel. It’s off a constantly moving 31st St, constantly looking out for pedestrians and bicyclists and skateboards and scooters and trucks backing up and the fire station across the street and a taxi driver leaning on a horn. Come inside for a rest from all that. Dim presence of faded candles and statues and this mysterious calmness that seems to exist in the quiet of an old church. We finish our conversation, we pray together, and off he goes to the life of the street, back outside. It’s the grace of encounter.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Beauty and Strangeness

April 20, 2021

There is a beauty and a strangeness to living in New York City, and the beauty can catch you as you walk along, say, the Hudson River on a cool and sunny Saturday morning, with only a few people out running or walking or bicycling by the river, and the sun reflecting off the calm waters, and in the distance, to the south, the Statue of Liberty rising in welcome to those new to the city. There is something about being near the water, stopping by a railing, the busy city for a moment behind me, the rush and noise subsided, a moment of fresh air.

And the strangeness of something like this: a group of people in red jackets walking in unison down 31st St. on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, carrying signs with them, and on their jackets the words “I hope you don’t go to hell.” They are on their way, it seems, to some kind of evangelization, some kind of street corner preaching, and I am sort of curious to see what this might be, but not curious enough to make a detour on my way to Union Square.

The strangeness of so much religion and preaching in these days, the casualness of a statement of ultimate destination, the uniform red color of the jackets, the steady walk toward some place to preach, the strange mixture in a crowd of this group of red-jacketed religionists and of everyone else on their normal way about things.
Beauty and strangeness and everything in between, and it’s another day on the city streets among the towers and alleys and trash and crowds and bright sunshine glinting off the river, and on this day at least NYC is a great place to be.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Late Afternoon In The Lower Church

April 16, 2021

What it’s like in the lower church….the lower church has a lower ceiling, the entrance is not as obvious or easy to find as the upper church. The upper church is the grand church with all the mosaics and statues, and all the space, and you just walk up the steps from the street and you’re in.

What is it about this lower church on a late weekday afternoon? Dim, not many people. An old faded carpet that probably needs to be replaced. A tacked up paper with mass and confession times. Old confessionals: how many voices have these heard over the years? A wooden sculpture of a mourning Mary holding her crucified Son. Candles flickering in the dimness. A hush to things, it’s less busy than upstairs.

Old wooden pews in the chapel facing an altar, and here, late in the afternoon of a cold and rainy day in New York City, there are maybe four people who have come for….what? They sit quietly in the dark wooden pews, some dozing, some leaning back and resting, bags by their side, a moment amid the chaos and noise of the city.

Absolute quiet, and the kind of peace and calm that everyone always seems to be looking for, four people quietly resting and being found by a searching and loving and compassionate God on this dark and rainy day in New York. It seems to be the center of the world, at least for now.

By the altar, flickering candles. Old dark wood. The feel of prayers that have been prayed by how many, and have risen and continue to rise, part of the air of this lower church. Silence. On the way out the door, above the exit sign, the words “Love one another.”
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Another Postcard 
 From The MoMA

March 24, 2021

Another postcard from my recent trek to the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street here in Manhattan, and it’s another postcard of a Dorothea Lange photograph. This one is called “Oakland, California” and it’s from 1942. It’s a black and white close-up image of the side of a house: an angled vertical on the left side of the photograph, horizontal siding, and a sign over the siding that reads “Furnished Rooms & Light Housekeeping Rooms.” We have here a close-up image of a boarding house, of a sign advertising available rooms. And just below the posted sign, a made-up sign tacked to the siding which reads “No Rooms, No Rooms.” It’s stark in its opposition to the sign above it and to what it means to tell us: times are hard, space is tight, there is no room at the inn. It’s stark and harsh in what it advertises: in this place, in this time, there is not enough for everyone. I am drawn to the photographs of Dorothea Lange, the way she brings her camera into the tough places of America and reveals the hard truths that life, that the American dream, may not be so easy for many in this land. Her photographs tell stories, bring us places and let us know that for many life may not be so well. And yet by framing her photographs the way she does, by showing us characters and images and highways and road signs, she gives a dignity to these same characters and places, lets us see, lets us learn about a side of America that may otherwise go unseen.
I am taken also by this made-up sign with its words “No Rooms, No Rooms” added almost with a sense of desperation: we have no room. And how it reads almost like a modern day Nativity story, the Holy Family on the move from Nazareth looking for a place to stay and they find “no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7). As if to say, it still happens now, this searching for a place to put down roots, to find some sense of home. And isn’t this why we go to look at art, why we walk around a city like this with our eyes open? To draw closer to the human experience, to the presence of the Holy in our midst.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

"Francesco"

April 11, 2021

A virtual movie recommendation….the Carolina Theatre in Durham NC is offering a virtual screening of “Francesco” which is a documentary about Pope Francis. I watched it last night on my iPad. It offers a beautiful portrayal of our beloved and bold pope. You can find the link on the the theatre’s website http://www.carolinatheatre.org and I believe it’s good through Thursday. Highly recommended!
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Postcards At MoMA

Postcards From The MoMA

April 5, 2021

One day last week at the gift shop at the Museum of Modern Art, and how I love to look around museum gift shops just to see creativity and imagination at play – books and cards and prints and objects all there, and you can take them home with you! There is a table marked “Sale” and on the table are oversized postcards from a recent exhibition of the photography of Dorothea Lange. She is perhaps best known for her photograph of what has come to be known as “Migrant Mother,” taken during the years of the Great Depression.

There is that postcard for sale, only 50 cents, and there are others too, and among them is another by her which has the title “On the Road to Los Angeles, California” from March 1937. I buy 10 of these, and one of them I keep in a frame on my desk. It’s a black and white photograph of two men walking along the dirt shoulder of a highway, their backs turned to us, one carrying a suitcase, the other with a bag slung over his shoulder. The road stretches on in front of them.

On the right side of the photograph, outlined against a gray and cloudy sky, is a billboard by the side of the road, and on the billboard is an image of a man reclining comfortably in a chair. Above the man in the chair are the words “Next Time Try The Train,” and next to the recliner the word “Relax.”
It’s a brilliant photograph, stark in its portrayal of these two men during the Depression years, on the road like so many in those years to some kind of better life, and the blithely indifferent image from a billboard of a man reclining in a comfortable seat on a Southern Pacific train. This is photography as art, as social art, as measuring the distances between what our advertising culture tells us, and the realities of the human lives around us.

It could be a modern day gospel story. It holds these two unnamed and unknown men in a dignified sympathy as we imagine where this road might take them, and the photograph framed on my desk holds as a kind of icon of the human experience of searching and hoping, and being known. It’s a gift of my visit to MoMA on this day, a gift of this great and compassionate photographer Dorothea Lange.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM

Roadtrip To Philly

March 24, 2021

These days of sameness, of one day running into another, of asking again the question, what day is today, is it Tuesday or is it Wednesday? It seems that way all the time. Yesterday morning, feeling better after some after-effects of the second vaccine, I decided to take a road trip to Philadelphia, which is about 90 miles down the road from NYC. Out of the city, onto the NJ Turnpike, and 90 or so minutes later, I parked the car by the St. Francis Inn, walked to the nearby subway, and was on my way.

It was freeing, my first time out of the city since October, which was also a one-day road trip to Philadelphia. The weather was sunny and warm, and that helps. I got off the subway at 30th Street Station, got a Jersey Mike’s sub, and walked along the Schuylkill River up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which stands like a temple at the end of the Ben Franklin Parkway. I sat on a bench by the water and had my sub, the calmness of the water amid the busyness of the city.

The museum is only open a few days a week during this time of pandemic. I still have my membership. I always approach a visit to a museum with an open-ended “what will I see today?” On the second floor, in a darkly paneled room, a painting by Rembrandt of the head of Christ. He looks thoughtful, considering, human: a man living a life, a man who has seen life, who seems to know that life is a combination of all kinds of things, and perhaps an insight of what fate awaits him. This painting: it’s just there, and I am alone with it for a time, the life of the city just beyond the walls outside, and this quiet moment like a gift on this day.

On the other side of the main staircase, also on the second floor: an enormous archway, from a 12th century church in France. Its sense of harmony, scale, aligned to the human. The way the stone is cut, all the details. It was somehow transported to Philadelphia in the early 20th century and reconstructed here, and there is a drawing of the church of which it was once a part, falling into ruin, in the French countryside. Scale and harmony and beauty, and its effect on our sense of space and of being in the world.

And, from 1285, a small painting, once part of a diptych, of St. Francis of Assisi and a donor. The background is all in black, with a luminous Francis and the small figure of the donor, from more than 700 years ago. And here it is in Philadelphia.

Later, outside in the sunshine, after nearly two hours in the museum, it’s good to be outside in the fresh air and sunlight, walking in the city. It’s good to be in another city besides New York: Philadelphia is less intense, has more of a neighborhood feel, seems a little less crazy in some ways. I stop in a used bookstore on 2nd Street, and there is a cat in the store, resting on some books, keeping an eye out I am sure for mice or any other prowlers. I take the subway back to the Inn, say hello to the friars and staff there, and am back on the road and back in NYC by 8:00pm, an easy ride back. In this time of confinement, such a freeing trip, and I’m grateful for the time to do it.
Fr. Steven Patti, OFM
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