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Franciscan Center closing after 38 years of service

Nick Lippa

For over three decades, The Franciscan Center has provided a home for thousands of runaway and homeless young men from Western New York. Tuesday, they announced they are closing their doors.

The Center has been a beacon of hope for troubled young men in the past. However, ministry officials believe today’s youth may need more than what they are able to offer with their Living Skills and Emotional Life Steps Program. Friar Joseph Bayne said despite the emotion, the closure of the ministry is a celebration.

“We’re celebrating here at the Franciscan Center 38 years of ministry,” said Bayne. “A combination of the community, the Franciscans, and our fabulous staff of great men and women. We took care of over 4000 young men who needed a safe place.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Friar Joseph Bayne speaking on the mark the Franciscan Center has made in Buffalo.

One of those key staff members is the Center’s Assistant Director Maureen Armstrong.

“We held dearly our mission to always have the best interest of every young man that came to our door who voluntarily chose to try and make the effort to improve their lives,” said Armstrong.”

One of their success stories is James Olesky. He came to the Center in 2009 at the age of 18 and lived there for 3 years. After arriving, he got his GED and a college education. He now works for the state helping the mentally disabled. Olesky said the ministry gave him a chance to understand who he is and who he wanted to be.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned here is to be compassionate and caring to one another. Because of them, I perused my passion of taking care of the mentally disabled. Without them, I would not be standing here today,” he said.

Ministry officials say the changing needs and issues of young people in today’s world have surpassed what they are able to offer in their Living Skills and Emotional Life Steps program. Bayne said this wasn’t a “shoot from the hip” decision.

“Maureen, my assistant director and I, have studied this probably for two years but very very seriously for two years,” said Bayne. “Our numbers of young men seeking help have gone down. We were never in to the numbers game. We were about quality care of runaway homeless youth and young men that needed a boost along the way.”

Olesky now works for the state helping the mentally disabled. The ministry hasn’t had a resident the past two months. He thinks stubbornness is holding back the youth of today from coming. That conclusion is drawn from his own personal experience.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
James Olesky credits The Franciscan Center for helping him find his career.

“When I first came to the Franciscan Center I didn’t want to learn a thing,” said Olesky. “But with Maureen’s tough love he got to me. She straightened my life out. And it took about six months… it’s all it took really.”

That tough love program was centered around teaching independent living skills and holding guests of the Center accountable for their impact on other guests.

Bayne said while reluctant at first, he’s happy he came to Buffalo. It’s something he wouldn’t have envisioned being a part of for over 25 years.

“When I was asked to come here by our long deceased provincial at the time Father Daniel, I was working in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania doing simple work. He (told me) Joe I need you to go to Buffalo,” said Bayne.

“Now this was a doctor of psychology who had studied in Rome and here was me a baby friar priest who knew nothing. And I said to him, ‘Are you nuts?’ And he laughed. I said, ‘What do I know about running a youth shelter?’ and he said, ‘Well you’re in to the fire department and emergency services’. I replied, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ and he said, ‘You know how to manage crises.’”

The Center closes its doors for good May 1.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Lou Billittier, owner of Chef's Restaurant and longtime supporter of the Center, was among many of the emotional speakers Tuesday.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.