Since 1980, the red brick house at the intersection of Seneca Street and Roanoke Parkway in South Buffalo has offered safe haven to more than 4,000 runaway and homeless young men from Western New York to China. For most of those years, Father Joseph Bayne, OFM Conv, served as The Center's Executive Director. In that role, he successfully oversaw a "tough love" program of independent living skills that earned recognition in publications as exalted as the New York Times. According to the respected friar, that dedication to excellence is what has compelled him to close the ministry's doors.
"We have done wonderful work here for 38 years and, while the need is still present, our services are not being sought out as in previous times," Fr. Bayne stated.
"It's highly emotional. It's been a long run of caring for young people. We have a lot to celebrate as far as success," said Father Joe, who says he spent the past year compiling data comparison statistics on similar ministries. After reflection on those results, he realized the changing needs and issues of young people in today's world have surpassed what the Franciscan Center was able to offer in its Living Skills and Emotional Life Steps Program. "After prayer and consultation with our center's local board of directors and our corporate board, we decided to take the tough but necessary step of closing The Franciscan Center."
In making the announcement, Fr. Bayne reflected on the many who have experienced The Center as "home." One such young man is Michael Brown who came to the ministry in 1990 as an abused teenager. Today, married and the father of two daughters with a successful 20-year career in banking, Brown gives credit to the people and the process of The Franciscan Center.
"I was abused by my mother and terribly malnourished when I came to The Center and they took such good care of me," Brown stated. "They fed me and helped me exercise and get stronger. They also helped me finish high school and get in to college. Truthfully, I don't know where I'd be if it wasn't for the center. It was truly a lifesaver. Even today I go back and talk to Fr. Joe. He is just such an incredible human being."
James Olesky spent the better part of three years at The Franciscan Center, describing it as, "...a most crucial part" of his life. "They put clothes on my back and taught me time management and life skills. Within two weeks of being there I got a job and then went on to get my GED and a college education. It was a miracle. I look up to Maureen and Fr. Joe as my parents. Father Joe is a true father to everyone at The Center."
Buffalo restauranteur, Lou Billittier has been involved with TFC as a long-time supporter and board member. He notes the closing in terms of community impact. "There is no doubt the closing of The Franciscan Center will be devastating loss for Western New York. These days there are very few places that open their doors to young men at the ages and under the circumstances as Fr. Joe and his staff have done. Fr. Joe has done everything to keep the doors open and this news is very tough. It's a shame."
Fr. Joe also credits many other donors for helping to keep the doors open, but notes that in recent months the eight-bed facility has had no residents. "In stewardship to our faithful benefactors, I cannot continue to take donations," said Fr. Joe.
To mark the official closing of The Franciscan Center in May, Fr. Joe and his staff are planning a celebration of the many lives that were changed and saved during the ministry's operation. It is the only way the devoted friar can imagine leaving behind his life's work with at-risk young men.
"It has taken me some months, along with the counsel of others, to accept that this is a good and just decision," Fr. Bayne stated. "This closing is not based on failure as we helped almost 4,000 young men and made a difference in their lives but, truthfully, I learned more from these young people than in any other place I have been assigned. I cried with them. I laughed with them. I even drove them to their proms. This was their home."
The executive director of the Center plans to meet with other local ministries to gauge their interest in the south Buffalo property. It's still unclear where the closure will leave Friar Joe. "Franciscans go where their sent. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm certainly going to ask the provincial if I can work in the Buffalo area, but I've got to wait and see what's said. Time will tell," said Father Joe. "I literally do not know what's next for me."