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Following Francis: Local believers practice principles of 13th century saint

By: Steve Rabey Religion correspondent
October 6, 2013
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ince Pope Francis was elected in March, his loving, accessible style has gained millions of fans. The new pope also has brought new attention to St. Francis of Assisi, one of Christianity's more beloved saints.

"He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time," the pope said of his namesake. "He changed history."

Many local believers - Catholics and non-Catholics - have been following St. Francis for years. And whenever the pope reaches out to the poor or the oppressed, they are reminded of the saint they serve.

St. Francis' feast day is observed Friday.

Here is a look at four local Francis followers and how the saint has shaped their lives.

Sisters of St. Francis

Centuries ago, Franciscans from Europe founded dozens of missions across the New World. The Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, a German order of hardy nuns now celebrating its 150th anniversary, has served the Pikes Peak region since four sisters arrived in 1887 to work at the Colorado Midland Railroad Clinic and to found St. Francis Hospital, which is now part of Centura Health.

Today, the sisters at Mt. St. Francis on Woodmen Road meet community needs through their nursing home, retreat center, mental health counseling and services for financially vulnerable women and children.

Sister Dorothy Schlaeger, the order's vice president, makes it clear that "perpetual adoration" doesn't mean sitting idly and meditating on God. Instead, they pray as they roll up their sleeves and work to remake the world.

"Francis saw God and loved God in everything and in everyone," Schlaeger said. "It's an all-embracing, lived adoration."

Schlaeger, who earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at Notre Dame, said Francis' ability to experience God in all of creation influences both Christian theology and practice.

"With the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God who became human, the whole world of hydrogen, oxygen and other material was made sacred," she said. "All that has been created is an expression of God's love.

Preaching at the mall

Father Gene Emrisek began following St. Francis half a century ago after noticing that Franciscan seminary students seemed joyful.

"There was a certain kind of allure to Francis, a romanticism, a charisma," he said.

Today, Emrisek is one of four priests serving at the Catholic Center at the Citadel, a mission by Capuchin Franciscans that converted retail space at The Citadel mall into a chapel with pictures of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, his female disciple.

Capuchins (whose brown robes and white hair inspired the name cappuccino, a brown coffee topped with foamed milk) emphasize both private prayer and public service.

"St. Francis always wanted his friars to go out into the marketplace and preach to the people," Emrisek said. "The mall is our marketplace."

Or, as the center's website explains: "In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, the Capuchin-Franciscans at the Citadel strive to provide a spiritual resource center that offers peace, reconciliation, and guidance to those who may feel a spiritual emptiness in their lives."

Emrisek sees the influence of St. Francis in the actions of Pope Francis, who has reached out to the poor and who washed the feet of a Muslim woman in a prison.

"St. Francis had no problem talking to an Arab Sultan during the Crusades, and Pope Francis has shown that he is willing to talk to anybody," he said.

The four Capuchin priests at Catholic Center offer Mass, hear confessions and try to help people any way they can.

"Francis said to preach always and if necessary use words," Emrisek said. "We do what we do because we are trying to be the best instruments we can for people. It's not that we do something special, but that God works through us. We try to make sure that happens."

Loving God's creatures

It's not only Catholics who follow Francis, as veterinarian Kim Kaufer showed when she opened St. Francis Animal Hospital a decade ago.

"I like the name because of what it embodies," said the founder of the business at 8834 N. Union Blvd. "I hope to be the kind of person Francis was."

Although Kaufer was raised Catholic, she left the church to "search the world over" for 20 years. Now she and her family are members of Woodmen Valley Chapel.

Some of her evangelical brethren wonder why Kaufer's business honors a Catholic saint, but she said Francis inspires her care for people and animals, including "integrative pet care" and the "celebration of the human-animal bond."

The hospital operates a St. Francis Memorial Fund to care for injured animals in need of financial assistance; mentors young people interested in veterinary medicine; and donates funds to community groups and charities.

"Every person and every living thing deserves to be treated with dignity," said Kaufer, who participates in church mission trips to Haiti and Swaziland.

"I believe Francis' life shows us how Christians should live - not accumulating wealth in this life, but serving others."

Francis' love of God's creatures also inspires the annual Blessing of the Animals service at Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

This year's service is at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

"St. Francis felt a special kinship with all of creation," said Steve Zimmerman, the church's rector. "He viewed the birds and animals of field and forest as his brothers and sisters. It's this sense of oneness that we honor in our service for the blessing of animals."

Over the years, people have brought everything from gerbils to horses to the service that celebrates Francis' unique legacy.

"The blessing of the animals is an opportunity to celebrate the love that we have for all God's creatures and all of God's creation. In blessing our beloved dogs, cats, roosters, iguanas and more, we honor and glorify God, who is their creator and ours," he said.

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