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Four Franciscan friars take on Ireland's toughest city

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Courtesy of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal

(Read caption) These Franciscan friars are working to renew an Irish city.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

What happens when a former US Marine becomes a Franciscan friar and then goes on to found a monastery in the toughest district of Ireland’s toughest city?

In 2007, Father Sylvester and a small group of American friars from the Bronx, N.Y., did just that when they arrived in Limerick, Ireland. They left behind their former lives as a teacher, a soldier, a punk-rock singer, and a rapper to transform lives through prayer.

The urban district they live in, Moyross – a sea of burned-down and boarded-up houses – is always in the news for the wrong reasons: drugs, shootings, and stabbings. But the friars are working to change that. They have made a makeshift friary out of three abandoned houses in an attempt to bring spiritual renewal at the same level as a government-funded, multimillion-dollar regeneration program.

In a time of crisis for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, the friars are trying to give people hope in countercultural ways. Their bushy beards, broad smiles, and shaved heads – not to mention their American drawls – seem to have captured Irish hearts. In 2008, they even appeared on “The Late Late Show” (considered Ireland’s premier talk show) alongside Bono and Sinéad O’Connor. But their celebrity is of a different kind. In an age of sexualized glamour, they practice humility and chastity; in an era of consumerism, they vow poverty.

Their informal youth ministry offers spiritual advice and support. At Christmas, they host a popular Nativity play that includes live animals, and their Easter Passion play draws a large crowd. Weekly prayer and support groups are offered for dads.

“People have the same needs all over the world,” says Brother Shawn, “we just try to show them the way to hope.”

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