For a boy who grew up with five sisters, the prospect of brotherhood was extremely attractive.
As a teenager, John Frampton encountered a Capuchin Franciscan priest who served as a chaplain at his high school in Newfoundland.
"He was happy every day. I said, 'If someone could be that happy, maybe I want to imitate him.'"
Thus began an unexpected life of adventure that started in 1983 with a period of discernment, eventual vows to consecrated life and no shortage of diversity in responsibilities since. During his 32-year stint as a religious brother, Brother John Frampton, OFM Cap. has done everything from build a skate park to run for municipal politics.
These days, he ministers to the poor in downtown Toronto by overseeing the Capuchin-run St. Francis Table. Located on Queen Street West in the Parkdale neighbourhood, the ministry began Christmas 1987 as a temporary way to feed those in need in an area that was undergoing gentrification. Almost 28 years later, St. Francis Table is still feeding Parkdale residents and people from all over Toronto, many of whom travel to the centre on TTC.
Dropping by at lunchtime, you can understand why. This is not an ordinary soup kitchen. Operating as a "restaurant for the poor," patrons pay a dollar for their meal and are served by volunteer groups who come from around the Archdiocese of Toronto and all over North America to assist with this important ministry. The dining room is bright and cheerful. Music plays and people chat amicably at tables as they eat their lunch.
Brother John serves up a meal at St. Francis Table on Queen Street West
The crowd is diverse. Families, young people who are working part time and struggling to make ends meet, immigrants and seniors are among the patrons Brother John regularly sees. Many of them are "working poor." One man has been coming to the centre every day for years after his wife passed away. With reduced income and few cooking skills, he relies on St. Francis Table to meet his practical needs and as a place where he can experience community.
"We can help people smile," Brother John says. "[The patrons] are fed physical food but they're fed other food as well. We minister. We don't work."
For patrons, the centre provides a sense of community.
While St. Francis Table is the arm of the Capuchin Franciscan ministry that reaches out to the poor, Brother John knows all Franciscan ministries serves the poor in some way.
"I think Jean Vanier describes the poor best for me when he says 'the poor are those in need.' We're all in need. We're all poor. The Gospel sends us out to minister to the poor. The poor are right where we are. They are with us and will always be with us."
Other Capuchin ministries in the Archdiocese of Toronto include a retreat centre at Mount Alverno in Caledon, serving the parish of St. Phillip Neri and St. Nicholas of Bari Parish, including outreach to the Eritrean community.
When he is not serving at St. Francis Table, Brother John lives in community with other Capuchin Franciscans. Fraternity is a major focus of their order. All Capuchin Franciscans (including lay brothers, consecrated brothers and priests) refer to each other as "brother" to foster a spirit of equality and fraternity. In this way, the order celebrates the unique vocation of the religious life and its importance alongside other vocations.
A primary commitment to fraternity includes a strong emphasis on a shared life of prayer, recreation, household duties and ministry. A typical day starts with Morning Prayer, Mass and breakfast in each Capuchin household. The men go out for the day to perform their assigned ministry, gather again for supper and once more for Evening Prayer.
Twice a day, the community gathers in the chapel to pray together as brothers.
"We're not perfect. We're not always there. But as much as we can, we re-work our schedules to make sure our prayer life and fraternal life is primary."
This prioritization of prayer is something Brother John recommends to anyone considering a vocation to the religious life, especially in this Year of Consecrated Life.
"Take time for silence and stillness to get in touch with the presence of God within you. The first thing to do is pray. A Come and See [retreat] helps. It doesn't hurt to shop around. Everyone has their own charism. If you find a charism that suits you, that you feel God is calling you to and where you can be happy, then go for it!"
He knows he found his. After growing up in a house full of sisters, he's happy living his ministry in a house full of brothers.
Throughout the Year of Consecrated Life, we will feature one religious order present in the Archdiocese of Toronto each month.
Marlena Loughheed is a communications coordinator in the Archdiocese of Toronto's Office of Public Relations and Communications.