SARANAC LAKE - With 70-degree temperature, sun and perfectly blue skies, Thursday afternoon was an excellent time for ice cream. And when I saw two guys in gray Franciscan robes enjoying cones in front of Stewart's, I couldn't help but think, "What a great photo."
I introduced myself to the young friars and shot a few frames as they wiped ice cream from their beards and chatted with a Stewart's employee ("God bless you," they said as she went back inside from her cigarette break) and then a visiting motorcyclist. It was easy to get talking with these two: 29-year-old Brother Paul Donnelly and 33-year-old Brother Gabriel Kyte. They must know their robes make them curiosity magnets, and they're obviously used to that. It's a good conversation starter, and they're good conversationists.
The garb works for them in other ways, too. For one thing, they said, it simplifies their lives, making clothing something they don't have to think about. For another, it's a universal, attention-grabbing symbol that advertises their faith and lifestyle wherever they're seen. The uniform does part of their ministry for them.
Brother Paul Donnelly, left, chats with a visiting motorcyclist as Brother Gabriel Kyte eats his ice cream cone Thursday in front of Stewart’s in Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
They were just passing through Saranac Lake on their way south to Yonkers and the Bronx, where they are based, but Brother Gabriel knows the Adirondacks fairly well. He grew up in Cornwall, Ontario and said spending time in these mountains, woods and waterways was an important part of his early spirituality, like nature was for St. Francis in the early 13th century. When Gabriel was trying to figure out a meaningful career path, he at one point thought maybe he'd move here and "raise a family in the woods somewhere."
He discovered the Franciscans about 10 years ago.
"I didn't know friars really existed," he said. "I fell in love with the life, fell in love with the work we do in the inner city."
Brother Paul first felt the call when he was 16, growing up in Michigan. Before that, he wanted to be either an opera singer or a doctor.
"But then everything changed," he said. "Really, my relationship with the Lord changed, and that changed what I wanted to do."
There were a few twists and turns on his way. He fell in love a couple of times, which ultimately helped him make up his mind.
"That was important," he said.
Joining a religious order, taking vows of chastity and communal living, dedicating one's life to charity and prayer - these are not the kind of decisions one often hears about Americans making these days. When Catholicism makes news, it's more likely a downer-type story about dioceses downsizing churches because they have fewer, older priests. But both of these young men are studying to become priests as well as friars. Brother Gabriel said there are 15 other seminarians in his class - no huge number, but significant in modern society.
"People say we have a (religious) vocation crisis, and it's true, but I think it's a crisis of vocations in general," Brother Paul said. For example, he said, just as fewer young adults follow religious careers, fewer choose to get married.
"The world needs people to live generous lives," he said with a smile as he licked his ice cream cone in the shade.