Seeking God Together: Our Joint Undertaking
By Rev. Michael DiGregorio, O.S.A.
Prior Provincial of the Augustinian Province of St. Thomas of Villanova
Our religious community, the Order of Saint Augustine, was established in the 13th Century, inspired by the spiritual insight and teaching of Saint Augustine. We are one of the several Mendicant Orders of the Church whose members seek to live out our Christian vocation of love for God and neighbor in the fashion of Saint Augustine, in communion of life and service. We are active contemplatives, called to impart to others the gifts we have received. To seek God together is our common project; to share our discovery of God is our joint undertaking.
Our Province bears the title of Saint Thomas of Villanova and was established by friars who came to the United States from Ireland. These friars arrived in the United States in 1796 with the intention of laying the foundation of the Order here while assisting in the missionary work of the Church. Over time, as native Americans entered the Order and additional friars from abroad arrived, the Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova was formally founded in 1874. The Province continued to experience such growth that it was able to respond to many invitations of bishops to establish new communities in various areas throughout the country. From this expansion two new Provinces were eventually formed, one in the Midwest, the other in California.
The Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova today, comprised of communities on the east coast, is composed of 154 friars who are involved in a variety of ministries. Our commitment to the apostolate of education finds us engaged presently in four educational institutions: Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania; Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts; Saint Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, New Jersey; and Malvern Preparatory School, in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Historically, however, the Province also founded and staffed several other institutions: Universidad de Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Cuba; Biscayne College/Saint Thomas University in Miami, Florida; Augustinian Academy, Staten Island, New York; and Austin Preparatory School, North Reading, Massachusetts.
The Province also cares for 10 parishes in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, some of them in inner-city ministries. In addition, the Province also staffs the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, and foreign missions in Japan and Peru. Friars are engaged, as well, in preaching and retreat ministry, Justice and Peace initiatives, prison ministry, spiritual direction and in the administration of the Order.
Our friars work collaboratively with lay men and women in all our ministries. A unique opportunity for collaboration in community and ministry with young people is through the Augustinian Volunteers: recent college graduates who feel called to spend a year in service to others while living in an intentional community and committing to personal and spiritual development. This year, 12 Augustinian Volunteers are serving with local community partners for 40 to 50 hours a week in Lawrence, MA, Philadelphia, PA, San Diego, CA, and Ventura, CA. Aside from being placed in one of the four domestic communities, volunteers also have the opportunity to serve internationally in Chulucanas, Peru.
While our engagement in educational and parish ministries is well-known, less so, perhaps, is our work on behalf of the marginalized and underserved outside of these structures. This initiative falls under our Province’s primary social ministry called the Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor (A.D.R.O.P.). Founded in 2004 by Fr. Jack Deegan, O.S.A., A.D.R.O.P. is a charitable branch of the Province that organizes service providers, leaders and volunteers. Fighting poverty is a core tenet of the Augustinians and we work to eradicate poverty systematically. In order to do this, the Defenders of the Rights of the Poor have a number of programs that take a holistic approach to mending both the symptoms and causes of poverty. Through the Unity Clinic, for example, we provide free primary care medicine by recruiting volunteer physicians, nursing students and nurse practitioners from Villanova University and the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to the Unity Clinic, the Defenders also support educational enrichment programs, free ESL classes, and a Restorative Justice Program for former prison inmates.
Of the 154 members of the Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova, approximately 100 are actively engaged in ministry; 42 are retired or infirm; five are newer arrivals still in the formation process; eight are Japanese friars ministering in 4 parishes in Japan. For many years we have collaborated with friars of our Midwest Province in the mission they founded in Chulucanas, Peru. Presently, there is one Villanova Province friar serving in Peru. All of our retired and infirm friars are cared for within the communities of the Province. Our health care facility, housed in our monastery at Villanova University, makes it possible for us to provide for the needs of most of our friars while they continue to enjoy full religious life in the Augustinian tradition.
The education and spiritual formation of those seeking to become Augustinian Friars is provided by us in our own communities. Experienced friars guide candidates throughout the discernment process relative to their call to our way of life as well as to the call to priesthood or brotherhood. Currently, our five simply-professed candidates receive their theological training with friars from our other two United States Provinces at our house of studies in Chicago.
With all of these active ministries and needs, we must continue to raise funds to support these efforts. As a Mendicant Order, we support ourselves and our ministries, and care for our infirmed friars and our vocation efforts through independent fundraising initiatives and the charity of benefactors. These efforts are underwritten by the Augustinian Fund and thanks to the generosity of many people, we are able to continue all of this important work.
As Augustinians of the Saint Thomas of Villanova Province, we are proud of our history and the relationships we have built in our local communities. Our hearts are truly on fire because we have the opportunity to collaborate in community with others and to be of one mind and one heart on the way to God.