Father John Felice, O.F.M, does not recall the New York City of the mid-1970s with much nostalgia. Infrastructure was crumbling. Crime was rampant. Legions of recently deinstitutionalized mentally ill homeless roamed the streets.
“The 70s were not the happiest of times,” the ebullient friar told CNY during a recent interview at St. Francis Residence II, 155 W. 22nd St. in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. The residence is part of the housing program founded by Father Felice and two other Franciscan friars in the 1970s for the homeless mentally ill.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way, explained Father Felice, who is marking his 50th anniversary as a friar this year. The original idea, growing out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, was that the mentally ill had civil rights too. And, as long as they were not a danger to themselves or others, they needed to be in the least restrictive setting possible.
“To go with that was going to be community centers to take care of them, to provide them services. They never materialized,” he said. “I remember the famous line from Senator (Daniel Patrick) Moynihan who said, ‘Where were these community centers?’ ”
In the mid-70s Father Felice was serving as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish on West 31st Street. Another friar there, Father John McVean, had started an apostolate to reach out the elderly in the surrounding neighborhood, some of whom were living in the nearby Aberdeen Hotel, a rundown single room occupancy (SRO) hotel on 32nd Street.
Father McVean had invited the pastor to join him on a visit to the hotel. He had met a psychiatric social worker there who talked to him about perhaps working together. The old hotel housed both the elderly and the mentally ill.
“The building was filled with de-institutionalized mentally ill people,” Father Felice remembered. “There were no services there for them. They would not take their meds and would wind up back on the streets or in Bellevue, just over and over again. It was a revolving door...We thought if we could help them with their medications and money we could stabilize them.”
The two friars set up a program to assist the tenants with their daily needs, including maintaining their antipsychotic medicines. Most of the tenants were suffering from schizophrenia. Father Thomas Walters, O.F.M., came on board with his counseling skills.
In 1979 the three priests received word that the hotel had been purchased and was to be converted into an upscale tourist hotel. The friars knew that unless something was done, the little community at the Aberdeen would be joining the tens of thousands of people then living on the streets of New York.
“We were having a drink actually,” Father Felice recalled. “And I said, ‘We’ll buy our own hotel.’” They convinced the Franciscans’ Holy Name Province to provide initial funds to purchase and establish their own residence that would combine medical, psychiatric care and personal support.
“We didn’t know anything about how to raise money,” Father Felice acknowledged. “Other people helped us. But we put a little package together and started looking for a building. We wanted to be right where we were. But there was no building available. So our circle widened and widened and finally we found a place on East 24th Street between Park and Lex. The province leant us some money to help renovate it, basically.”
St. Francis Residence, a 100-unit SRO facility, opened in 1980. Today St. Francis Friends of the Poor comprises three residences that offer permanent housing and support services to some 255 tenants. The residence on West 22nd Street, now sandwiched between luxury high rises, is the second. A third residence, opened in 1986, is situated on Eighth Avenue, between 17th and 18th streets.
“What we were doing by accident was creating something they now call supportive housing. It’s onsite services for people with varying disabilities,” Father Felice explained.
“We help with their medication management, their money management,” he said. “We have a breakfast program, a lunch program, if they want to participate. We have some activities on site and off. We have psychiatric services, medical services, entitlement services. They find a life here. Our purpose as friars is always to form a community, even among this population, which is characterized by isolation. The staff is wildly dedicated. …”
People soon started coming from across the city, the nation and then the world to see what the three Franciscan friars had built, to ask questions, to study their methods and copy their ideas. Now there are some 16,000 units of similar housing for people with varying special needs in New York City.
“We were just young and enthusiastic, and it worked,” said Father Felice. “...I just have this notion of a living God. I just think that is so, and if our brains and hearts are open, they will be filled with things that are important to do. I’m not saying we had nothing to do with it, but I am saying we didn’t do this alone. There is a generous God, and I thought this is a good thing and I think he did too.”
A Patchogue native, he joined the Franciscans in 1962 and professed first vows in 1963. “Their simplicity of heart and genuine affection for their work attracted me,” he said.
He was ordained in 1968 and became pastor at St. Francis of Assisi when he was 31. He served as provincial of Holy Name Province from 1997 to 2006, creating the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.
When his term ended, he returned to St. Francis Friends of the Poor where he is co-director. In June he was honored, along with other friars marking their 25th and 50th anniversaries, at the annual Jubilee Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church.
“When I joined the order we’d have the (jubilee) celebrations every year and we’d see all those (older friars) and wonder how could that possibly be,” he recalled with a laugh. “Well, all of the sudden, you’re one of them!
“Now myself and the other friars that started this are in our 70s and our job is preparing for the future. How are we going to have a friar presence here? This is permanent but we’re not.”