On 2 August 2017, twenty-four year old Kes Watson made First Profession into the Order of Friars Minor at the Interprovincial Novitiate, Burlington, Wisconsin, USA. He was one of nine novices from the USA, Canada, Eire and England.
Born in Lithuania but having lived in England with his family since the age of six, Kes often travelled back to his mother’s homeland where he met the Lithuanian Friars of St Casimir Province. Witnessing their Gospel way of life and spirituality he first felt inspired to consider becoming a Friar, too.
Prior to joining the Friars of the UK Immaculate Conception Custody, Kes worked in a care home in his native Norfolk. In 2015 he entered the postulancy in Killarney, Ireland, with four other candidates and a year later travelled to the States for his novitiate. On the Feast of Christ the King he was clothed in the brown habit and white cord of the Order.
Having made First Profession Kes will continue his formation at Athlone Friary, Ireland, in the company of the Irish students, Denis Aherne and PJ Carroll, and enrol for philosophy studies at Maynooth University, part of the National University of Ireland.
The adventure of seeking to know the way of Jesus Christ and Francis of Assisi’s charism, continues for Kes today. As St Francis said to his Friars: “May Christ teach you what is yours to do.”
Below he writes an account of his time in the Burlington Novitiate.
On August 12th I landed in Chicago O’Hare Airport.
The first thing that hit me was the humidity of the Mid-Western air; secondly, was the size of my surroundings. An Irish confrere and I travelled to our home for the next year. Driving up the long drive I was struck by the size of the Friary and especially its colour. Later, driving up to the house, we would sing, “We all live in a yellow friary!”.
The next few days the other novices started arriving and we slowly became the 13 guys that made up our community, plus the 3 Friars who would be guiding us in this way of life for the next 12 months.
‘Novice’ being the title given to a Friar who is new to this way of life and starting his year of probation, a time period where you live the life, ask questions of yourself and the Order and discern whether you are happy. We were received into the novitiate on August the 15th and our year began.
The early stages of the novitiate were a time of getting to know the other Brothers. We were a very diverse group of men from all over the American continent and “over the pond”. Myself from the UK and an Irish Brother.
We had three Brothers from the East Coast (Manhattan, Long Island and Annapolis, Holy Name Province) two from California (San Francisco and LA, Santa Barbara Province) three from the Mid-Western Province (Joliet, Las Vegas and Chicago, Sacred Heart Province) one from Eastern Canada (Trois-Rivieres in Quebec, St. Josephs Province) one from Eastern Texas (Tyler county, Assumption Province) and a finally a Brother from Central America (Costa Rica, Holy Name Province).
Each Brother brought his experiences, views and ways of doing things to the community, challenging at times but there was a hidden grace in encountering difference and learning to “be” and live amongst diversity. Getting to know their stories and returning to our “timelines”, reflecting back on important events in our lives, both the joyful and difficult moments.
This gave us a better understanding of ourselves, the reasons behind why we did something or acted in a certain way. This opened my perspective on situations and broadened my view on what might be going on for my Brothers and the wider community. By going back to my life “timeline” naturally made me go forward towards people and their lives.
During the year we were involved in ministries in the wider communities. One day a week we had the opportunity to volunteer and work for various organisations and groups who helped those most in need, in keeping with a central part of our Franciscan charism and spirituality.
The work varied from working the elderly in a Memory Care Unit, immigrant advocacy within the Latino Community, working with sex-trafficked women trying to escape that way of life, visiting housebound, elderly and lonely members of the community and finally working in a food pantry, charity shop and greeting centre for the homeless and poor. I was involved with “St. Ben’s”, and the House of Peace, two organisations which worked with the local African-American communities. One was a food pantry supplying the needs of those who struggled paying bills and needed a helping hand. The services we offered there were varied: medical care, clothing, food supplies, housing assistance, counselling, spiritual support and just a friendly person to talk to.
The other site I helped out in was a greeting centre for the homeless. Welcoming the guests and helping in any way that we could, from “co-pays” (voucher for specific medicine), clothing, showers (with fresh clothes provided), hygiene bags, birth certificates, out of state bus tickets for people stranded and simply providing the service of being there for the guests in times of difficulty. Both of these sites were located in the Milwaukee inner city area, Milwaukee being one of the States most segregated cities.
Naturally as Friars our mission and work was to challenge this view and respond to each person as a human being. This came not without its challenges and many guests came to us from the streets with their own pains and hurts and typically the first to listen to them received some of this backlash. But our response was one of patience, not trying to fix people but being present to them and trying to understand where they were coming from and if I could help in any way. Sometimes just sharing my life and allowing them to trust me enough to share theirs brought a lot of healing.
During the course of the year we gave up the things that we felt were going to distract us from the interior life, prayer and doing our personal development work. Later we received the Rule and Constitutions of the Order and began to study them to understand what we were going to profess. And we received the habit.
In studying our Franciscan traditions, spirituality and the history of the Order I realised what a colourful history it is!
There were workshops on many different topics; addictions, sexuality and living multi-culturally in today’s world. Sometimes the material challenged my views but giving things a chance meant that I remained open to new things and the possibility to expand my worldview. Everything was forming me as a more compassionate and understanding Christian man who tried out of love to deal with those around me, preparing me as a Franciscan to move into an unknown world.
The novitiate allowed me to take a step back and through prayer, community and working with the most vulnerable to challenge some of my opinions about how I look at the world and myself. It has given me some tools to continue doing my interior work and to respond to the world around me and to the People of God, which is every living person!
Everything was preparing me to profess my first vows as a Franciscan Friar. I made profession at the novitiate house in Burlington, Wisconsin in the midwest of America on the 2nd of August 2017. From there I’ll be enjoying a short break and preparing for the student life again as a Friar in Ireland.
The road at first may not seem clear but answering that interior invitation is the beginning of a journey. I myself never imagined when I first left England at 20 years old that my life would have opened as it has, and that I would have been involved in some many people’s lives.
Kes Watson, September 2017