Meet the friars who have been praying to St. Anthony daily for 100 years
Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jun 12, 2022 / 12:09 pm
Catholics know St. Anthony of Padua as a Franciscan preacher, a doctor of the Church, and the patron of lost things. For the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in upstate New York, he’s also a big brother.
“He is a big brother to us and we pray to him for intercession,” Father Brian F. Terry, the minister general, told CNA ahead of the saint’s feast day on June 13.
His order, he added, prays the longest continuous novena, or daily prayer, to the 13th-century saint from Portugal.
“It’s not just nine days,” Terry stressed. “It’s been a novena we’ve been saying since the foundation of the community.”
Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, Servant of God Father Paul Wattson founded the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement to walk as brothers with those who are lost and in need of God’s healing. While the New York-based order began in 1898 in the Anglican tradition in the Episcopal church, its members converted to Catholicism in 1909.
Today, Terry said, there are around 65 friars, including those in formation. There are also 90 sisters with whom the friars serve.
400,000 annual prayer requests
The story of their devotion to St. Anthony starts in 1912 when they had just finished installing a statue of the saint in their St. Francis Chapel. One day, as Wattson stood before the statue, someone handed him a letter from a mother begging for prayers for her dying baby, who happened to be named Anthony.
“I immediately knelt before this image of St. Anthony with the Divine Infant in his arms and besought the Wonder-Worker of seven centuries to intercede for baby Anthony’s life,” Wattson recalled in his journal.
Every evening, Wattson and the friars prayed for the saint’s intercession. Two weeks passed and the mother wrote again — this time to say that little Anthony was miraculously cured.
From that time on, the friars began praying every day in a “perpetual novena” before the statue, a spot known today as “St. Anthony’s corner.” They dedicate their prayers to the petitions they receive from the faithful.
According to Terry, the friars receive more than 400,000 prayer requests every year.
The letters come from around the world in different languages. But they have one thing in common: They ask for the friars to pray for St. Anthony’s intercession.
For the saint’s feast day, thousands of pilgrims gather annually at the friars’ St. Anthony National Shrine at Graymoor, in Garrison, New York, located roughly 50 miles north of New York City. This year will mark the friars’ first large-scale in-person celebration since 2019, following the pandemic.
“One of the big traditions they have here is people love to bring candles to the shrine,” Terry told CNA. “By the end of the night, we will have thousands of candles on the steps around the shrine. It’s absolutely beautiful. … It’s just stunning.”
The friars recognize the shrine — a dream of Wattson’s — as the largest outdoor shrine of St. Anthony in the United States. Dedicated in 1960, the shrine located on the friars’ 400-acre mountain-top property features a large marble statue of St. Anthony holding the child Jesus.
Wattson “had a devotion to St. Anthony pretty much most of his life,” Terry said.
For his part, Terry described the saint as “one who went out to find the people where they were, and met them and just told them a simple story of a loving God.”
The friars carry this out in their service, which includes everything from encouraging dialogue among all faiths to running ministries such as St. Christopher’s Inn, which Terry said houses 180 men that are homeless and suffering from alcohol and drug problems.
For those unable to visit the shrine in person, the friars’ website features its own “St. Anthony Prayer Corner,” which includes the saint’s story, the friars’ connection to the saint, and prayers and novenas for the faithful seeking the saint’s intercession.
“St. Anthony, gentlest of saints, your love for God and charity for his creatures, made you worthy, when on earth, to possess miraculous powers. Miracles waited on your word, which you were ready to offer on behalf of those in need,” one prayer reads. “Encouraged by this, I ask you to hear my prayers.”