Catholic Herald Staff
A Secular Franciscan fraternity is under construction in the Diocese of Superior.
Veronica Willand, a member of St. Joseph Parish, Hayward, hopes to extend the order’s message of peace, penance and servant leadership to Catholics in the center of the diocese.
An RCIA leader, baptism class teacher, sacristan and Eucharistic minister, Willand has been a Secular Franciscan since 2010. Before her profession, she spent two years in formation.
“You learn all about St. Francis and his way of life,” she said.
The order emphasizes his way is “from Gospel to life, and from life to Gospel.”
Willand grew up in Chicago. Back when her son was in high school, a Secular Fransiscan group was meeting at Loyola University in downtown Chicago, and his friend’s mother was studying to join.
Willand was always interested in the order, but – unbeknownst to her – all the information passed along to her son by his friend ended up in the back of a locker, and she missed the opportunity.
Years later, after she’d moved to the Diocese of Superior, Willand was in a lay ministry class when she encountered another Secular Franciscan group while on retreat at St. Anthony Spirituality Center, Marathon.
Her interest renewed, she looked for a local fraternity. Although Catholics on the eastern side of the diocese have several options – Rhinelander and Woodruff both have fraternities, as do nearby towns in the Diocese of La Crosse – there was nothing in the central region.
Still, Willand wanted to learn more, so she made the two-hour drive to Chippewa Falls to meet members of the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Fraternity.
“I went there, and I just felt like, yeah, this is it. I fit into this,” she said.
Secular Franciscans take St. Francis as their model, and Christ was St. Francis’ model, she explained. Christ was part human, but “St. Francis was just plain old human, and he was a cavalier guy before he changed his life over to Christ.”
The order’s vision, therefore, is to model St. Francis’ total commitment to the Lord.
As her formation progressed, others were asking Willand why she was so happy despite struggles she’d endured.
“This is it,” she told them. “When you have Christ, and St. Francis and St. Clare, you have it all.”
One of Willand’s most painful trials was the murder of her son in a drive-by shooting in Chicago.
“He was 20,” she said. “Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Even as she grieved, Willand realized her son was dead, but she was alive. This she attributed to God and, with help from the Secular Franciscans, she found peace.
“The St. Francis way of life equipped me for just about everything,” she added.
Soon, Willand was sharing her experience with others. A friend began studying with the St. Elizabeth Fraternity and professed three years ago; another is scheduled to profess in March.
Others have also inquired about the order, but Willand said the 75-mile trip to Chippewa is a deterrent. The St. Elizabeth group meets for a mini-retreat the first Sunday of the month; travelers from Hayward spend four hours on the road for each meeting.
Secular Fransiscans also serve their communities, and the travel time makes it difficult for Willand to help out in Chippewa in the evenings, particularly in the winter. For this and other reasons, she’s started the process of forming a fraternity in Hayward.
Two professed Secular Fransiscans and a sponsoring group are all that is needed to create a fraternity, and Willand and her friend, sponsored by the St. Elizabeth Fraternity, are the core members.
A fraternity is in formation for up to three years and must have papal permission to become a full-fledged community, she said. The formation process is laid out in the order’s rules and constitution.
Willand hopes the new group will attract individuals from around the area and allow members to serve the poor, homeless and others in their Northern Wisconsin communities. She wants to improve the order’s local visibility, get youth involved and show people that amid the wars and violence, there is peace in God-centered living.
A call to service
Servant leadership is key to St. Francis’ way of life, according to Willand.
“We’ve been that since inception – way back,” she said.
St. Francis’ way was to listen, be compassionate, communicate and serve others. Secular Franciscans are called “brothers and sisters of penance.”
“Forgiveness is a big, big thing in the Franciscans, and we definitely need a sense of humor,” she added. “I pride myself on my lopsided humor. Too much seriousness can limit the growth of joy. And I never take a step without Jesus.”
Becoming a Secular Franciscan is a lifetime commitment; those suited to profess are of good character, self-disciplined, spiritually healthy and “must also have that yearning for Christ,” Willand added.
Proselytizers, overly opinionated or self-centered people, materialistic types and those who are not working to overcome their addictions would probably not make good candidates, she said.
Secular Franciscans must also be Catholic, although there is an ecumenical community for the faithful of other denominations. Anyone who has professed vows to one order also cannot join a second order.
Although Secular Franciscans live simply, they do not give up all of their worldly possessions, don robes and become barefoot ministers in the manner of St. Francis.
“We are out there amongst the secular people,” she said. “Thus, we are the Secular Franciscans.”
Members are also expected to put their friends and families first.
“Our first responsibility as Secular Franciscans is to do our best in our living situations,” she added. “We don’t have to give up everything. God has a vocation for everyone.”
As she prepares to meet with ministers of the Secular Franciscans’ Queen of Peace Region, a preliminary step toward fraternity formation, Willand wants to get the word out to Catholics in the Hayward area.
“I want for people to know that it’s out there, and for people to let us know if they are interested,” Willand said.
Anyone who wants to learn about the order can attend the Queen of Peace Region’s fall meeting at St. Olaf Parish Center, Eau Claire, on Saturday, Sept. 27. The meeting is open to all. Registration is $25. Contact Willand, 715-469-9259 or , for details.