By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 3, 2020
ATLANTA—Father Robert Perez, OFM Cap.—he introduces himself as Robert—fills cups with lemonade or for anyone who asks, mountain mint tea. Father Praveen Turaka, OFM Cap., spoons the hearty soup of chicken and vegetables into bowls to be given to anyone who asks.
For these priests, this work in the Druid Hills neighborhood returns them to the roots of their centuries old Franciscan community. A group of women and men, many who live on the street, gather as part of the Mercy Community Church and use the facilities of St. John Lutheran Church.
“Our life is to live the Gospel, basically as St. Francis was saying. Basically, we go out and do whatever the church needs for us to do,” said Brother Perez.
He and his brother friar finished cleaning the pots and putting them away in the small kitchen before sitting down on the shady lawn. Both are living out the spirituality of their community by serving those in need in the archdiocese. While ordained priests, they prefer to be called brothers.
The two men are the start of a new community of Capuchin Franciscans in Atlanta, joining the many religious orders already serving in the archdiocese.
As the number of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Atlanta has grown to more than a million, religious communities have followed. There were 70 religious priests serving here in 2009, which grew to 88 in 2018.
The Capuchins are a branch of the Franciscan family tree. In the 16th century some Franciscan men desired to live a more austere religious commitment, with an emphasis on simplicity and poverty. It was one of many reform efforts of the order. Its formal name is The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. Capuchin comes from the Italian word “cappuccio” for hood and refers to their tunic’s long pointed hoods.
In 2017, the members of the Province of the Sacred Stigmata of St. Francis agreed to open ministries in the southeast around Miami and Atlanta. It would send men to focus on a renewal of Capuchin values—prayer, a brotherhood lived in simplicity, and living with and ministering to the poor, especially immigrants.
The friary, which by year’s end will have four men, is a four-bedroom contemporary home in a housing development just outside Interstate 285, close to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. They call it Our Lady of the Angels Friary. The chapel is a converted sitting room, where they celebrate daily Mass. The two priests start their day in silence with a half hour of prayer around 7 a.m. and end their day also in silence.
Paths to the priesthood
Both men came to the Franciscans along similar routes. They both said they wanted to serve as priests since they were young.
Brother Praveen attended a Catholic school in his native India and was baptized in seventh grade, along with his mother and younger brother, after his father died. His mother worked in a pharmaceutical factory. He played badminton growing up and enjoyed fishing.
As a teenager, a religious sister brought him to a parish where Capuchin priests served.
“The main reason to join is my mom doesn’t want me to go away. So, she thought Capuchins are close by,” said Brother Praveen, laughing at how the order brought him to the United States. He entered seminary in 2002.
Brother Robert didn’t speak English when his family left their farm in the Dominican Republic in 1999 to emigrate to New York City. As a teen not speaking the language, he spent time walking the city streets and being a parish youth group leader in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
He said he felt as a young man called to the priesthood, but in New York was ready to apply for medical training knowing it would be a life dedicated to serving people. However, he traveled to Rome as part of the Great Jubilee 2000 celebration and it cemented in his mind to pursue the priesthood. He entered religious life in 2001.
Lives of simplicity
The two didn’t enter the community because of the life of austerity, but the simple lifestyle has enriched their lives. Brother Praveen remembered when he started studying the Capuchin way of life in seminary, he found the community’s leader laboring in the community’s garden.
“I was surprised because I never saw a priest working outside,” he said. “I always see them celebrating Mass.”
As a sign of simplicity, their plain habit includes the pointed hood and a cord belt with three knots as a sign of their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Many wear sandals, some attach a rosary to the belt.
This new friary and ministry in Atlanta roots them in the foundation of their community started in the 16th century, said Brother Robert. The early Capuchins wanted to live as close as possible to the life of St. Francis of Assisi by being with the materially poor, he said. In Atlanta, that is where they will focus much of their work. They will be available to serve as supply priests at Mass when a pastor is on vacation or offer parish days of reflections. Stipends from those ministries will support their service work.
Since arriving at the end of July, the two friars have worked with the Missionaries of Charity, spent time with refugees and helped at this small ecumenical Christian church, Mercy Community Church, with its free meals, sharing clothes, Bible discussions and welcoming all.
Pastor Chad Hyatt is one of spiritual leaders of the church, which “puts the acts of mercy at the center of what we do.”
The community has welcomed the friars, with folks asking questions about their robes, learning more about Catholic traditions and customs, he said. The group often recites the prayer attributed to St. Francis, so Pastor Hyatt said he makes a point to show church members how the two friars are followers of the saint.
The men are “humble servants” doing the hidden work that is important but often gets done last, he said. Pastor Hyatt said while the men are quiet, he hopes they will come to share their faith stories and offer prayers and reflections to the group.
Brother Robert said the chance to live the original vision of a Capuchin friar attracted him to this new opportunity in Atlanta.
“What excites me is to have the opportunity to go back to the original charism, to have this ministry that is focused with the poor. The emphasis is we are here to be with them and to accompany them, and basically to strive to be one with them.”