The St. Bernadine of Siena fraternity, part of the Secular Franciscan Order, held their Rite of Profession on September 25 at the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda. The fraternity welcomed four new members: Dr. John Potenciano (l.) Michelle Potenciano, Melanie Delf and Carol Hockeson. Fr. Mike Tyson, OFM, (second from left) also attended as the fraternity’s former spiritual advisor. (Photo provided)
The St. Bernadine of Siena fraternity, part of the Secular Franciscan Order, held their Rite of Profession on September 25 at the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda. The fraternity welcomed four new members: Dr. John Potenciano (l.) Michelle Potenciano, Melanie Delf and Carol Hockeson. Fr. Mike Tyson, OFM, (second from left) also attended as the fraternity’s former spiritual advisor. (Photo provided)

Michelle and John Potenciano always felt pulled toward their Catholic faith. Now, they have taken their vocation to the next level as members of the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS).

“This community goes beyond the Church and tells you how to translate the Gospel to real life,” Michelle said.

Unbeknownst to many, the OFS is a hidden gem for lay Catholics. The order spans across the country and internationally and is a way for secular and non-religious Catholics to commit their lives to live out the Gospel without joining a religious community.

For the Secular Franciscans who join the order, they spend their days seeking to bring the Gospel alive in the Franciscan way. Each regional fraternity offers Catholics a sense of love and fellowship to grow their commitment to the Church and the Franciscan call.

On Sept. 25, the Potencianos — along with Melanie Delf and Carol Hockeson — professed promises (a secular version of taking vows) with their local fraternity, St. Bernardine of Siena at the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda. St. Bernardine of Siena’s former spiritual advisor, Father Mike Tyson, OFM, and other members of the regional chapter were all part of the celebration.

“That profession didn’t happen by accident, it was God’s will,” John added.

The Secular Franciscan Order dates back to the early 1200s. St. Francis of Assisi, a powerful preacher and role model to many Catholics at the time, attracted many couples who were unable to join a religious order due to their marriage but still wished to follow in St. Francis’ example, one of humility, promoting peace and worshiping God. 

As a middle ground, St. Francis formed the Secular Franciscan Order, which allowed for married and secular Catholics to join in communion to follow in the Rule of the Order established by St. Francis.

The Rule of the Order, in essence, calls for its members to observe the Gospel of Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi. Members promise to love God, love one’s neighbor, turn away from sinful tendencies, receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and as a result of its power, live a renewed life characterized by charity, forgiveness and compassion to others.

“The nucleus of it is you live the Gospel according to the Rule that St. Francis set up and was okayed by the pope,” said Donna Ferlazzo, minister of the St. Bernardine of Siena fraternity. “(We follow) everything that Jesus said to his Church and we follow the Church’s doctrine.”

The OFS is scattered into various fraternities, growing from local to regional to national to international. St. Bernardine of Siena fraternity is one of 23 chapters inside the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Region of Secular Franciscans, which covers most of upstate New York and northwestern Pennsylvania.

Members of St. Bernardine of Siena come from all over, some as close as Albany, ranging all the way up to Glens Falls. The group operated for years out of the St. Francis Chapel on Wolf Road until it closed in June 2020. Now the group typically meets at St. Ambrose Church in Latham.

To enter a fraternity, members must go through the beginning steps of formation — attending meetings and talking with other members and ministers — before becoming candidates when the official formation process starts and averages three years. The process typically consists of attending monthly meetings and studying both the life of St. Francis and the OFS.

The Potencianos discovered the Franciscan group while attending Mass at St. Francis Chapel in 2015. Originally from the Philippines, the couple moved to the U.S. in 2006 and hoped to dive deeper into their Catholic faith: “When we moved here we were looking for a church community where we could serve and at the same time grow,” Michelle said.

Delf always felt a calling to religious life. “At 13, I felt that God was calling me to something,” she said. “I sought out religious life but ended up getting married and having children, but it’s never gone away, that call."

It’s a unique and interesting challenge presented to members of the order: to incorporate strongly the Gospel and the spirit of St. Francis into their daily lives while still operating in a non-religious, secular environment.

Delf said it can be hard to find the right balance between keeping their daily promises to their faith while still living a normal, secular lifestyle: “I’m still learning to find time to read the Gospel (and) be in the office. I really have to schedule (prayer), and it’s hard.” 

Delf, 59, teaches religious education at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School in Schenectady. Compared to her previous work in the private sector, it’s easier to bring God to work, but still a struggle to bring to fruition.

“I say, how can I bring God to work today and be open to him in my life?” she said. “How can I be God for these children and these people in my life?”
Father Tyson noted that because members are secular, not religious, nobody should kick themselves for having to put family, work or daily challenges first.

“When you put God first, that means that God is there,” he said. “God is a priority, but he may not be the priority. You still have to take care of your family.”

The priest added that Secular Franciscans are living out the spirit of St. Francis. “You don’t take vows or give up having a family, but it means you’re good in your faith, you’re charitable and you’re loving to people,” he said.

Similarly, the vows taken by the Franciscan friars, such as chastity, obedience and poverty, can be carried out “in spirit” by Secular Franciscans.
“The spirit of poverty doesn’t mean that you go hungry,” Father Tyson said. “You support charities or your church.”

Ferlazzo often donates to Catholic Charities or rescue missions. For her, carrying out the spirit of poverty means being able to share the things you have.

“You still can have things like a nice house, but you can’t love them so much that you can’t share them,” she said. “You should be giving away items in your house that you don’t want to keep using, you share that by donating them. … You don’t have to live simply, but you have to be aware of other people’s needs and reach out to them.”

At times, being humble, patient and thoughtful of others can be difficult, especially in moments of irritation, like dealing with traffic or unruly kids. Delf said that her “faith doesn’t save me from those uncomfortable situations, but it calls me to put God in that situation and not rely on just myself.” Having the responsibility of carrying out the Rule of St. Francis “changed my perspective in many different ways,” she said, “because I have to be an example of Christ.”

As a primary-care doctor with his own private practice in Albany, John Potenciano hopes to bring more of Christ’s love and understanding to his workplace: “We all know health care has become a business, but I want to come up with a health care that is about compassionate care,” he said. “One that really listens to the patient, one that is able to make (the patient) feel that they are being valued as a person.”

His efforts to go above and beyond have earned him the nickname “Father John” by some patients. Other patients have called him “a godsend.”

“Some nurses say, ‘Why do you spend time talking to that patient, you know they have dementia?’ But in my case that person is a person,” he explained. “And when I see that smile on the patient’s face, for me, that’s my reward. To see them smile back to me.”

For many members, having the Secular Franciscan community added a level of support and friendship in their faith they couldn’t find on their own. Delf said, “it was harder” to live out her faith before joining the Secular Franciscans. “Without a community, I was by myself. It was hard to be alone.”

“(OFS) is when you want a deeper relationship than you feel you’re getting from going to church on Sunday,” Ferlazzo said, “because you live it every day.”