Brother Rigo Azanwi calls himself an “air friar.”
“I’m daring,” he says. “Helicopter tours, skydiving, skiing, golfing; I like anything adventurous.”
But when he’s not performing daredevil stunts, the 30-year-old Capuchin Franciscan Friar dons a brown habit and strolls through Lawrenceville, where the religious order has been stationed since 1873.
The Province of St. Augustine, named after the 37th Street church it has served since its formation, is made up of 120 men who serve in Pittsburgh, the District of Columbia, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, Puerto Rico and Papua New Guinea. Unlike monks who live a solitary life of prayer in one place, friars are well-traveled and active in their communities.
Following the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian friar who lived from 1181 to 1226, members of the province spread the gospel as priests, hospital and prison chaplains, and professors. (If you want an overview of the local Capuchins’ history, there’s a large, three-panel bronze plaque on 37th Street that tells the tale).
It may not be a trend, but men in their 20s and 30s are still taking an interest in a religious life that requires vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
In 2020, the Lawrenceville location underwent a major renovation, including the establishment of The Port, an evangelization ministry with a storefront at 3620 Butler St. It is a safe haven where young adults with faith inclinations can socialize, explore service opportunities, create art, listen to live music and confess their sins.
Brother Ross Henley, director of The Port, says the ministry is primarily event-based, including Thursday morning runs, Catholic trivia nights and portrait drawing classes.
Restless and jaded by the rat race, Henley wanted to simplify his existence. He connected with the Capuchin friars while working in Washington, D.C. He’s been a brother for a decade and came to Pittsburgh two years ago to help other like-minded men find their way to God. The process of becoming a friar can take up to eight years; many potential members don’t make it past the first 12 months.
Brother Alex Hostoffer, 35, was an investment banker in Cleveland. Raised in a Catholic household, he strayed from the church during his college days as a Division I swimmer. Discovering the Capuchins online in 2013 brought him back to the fold and gave him a new purpose.
“It was the right balance of prayer and ministry,” says Hostoffer, who now serves as the Province’s postulancy directory, guiding men at the beginning of their spiritual journey.
An average day includes communal prayer and meals, Mass, ministering to the community and recreation time. You’ll often see brothers enjoying a meal or even a beer together at a Lawrenceville restaurant, including The Abbey on Butler Street. Their public behavior must reflect the values and vows of the Capuchins.
“We have three square meals a day and a roof over our heads,” says Father John Pfannenstiel, who became a friar in 1974. “It can be a very lovely life. As humans, the natural inclination is to determine your future yourself. As a friar, this is determined for you. You are moved to where you’re needed. Our obligation is to the world population.”
Brother David Domanski, 46, also a Cleveland native, was Hostoffer’s postulancy classmate. He had been happy with life traveling around the world as an industrial product designer for Moen, a plumbing fixture manufacturer, but something was missing.
He started volunteering at soup kitchens in Cleveland and found that serving the poor enriched his spirit.
“I wanted to go deeper with my relationship with God,” Domanski says.
Unlike many of his fellow friars, Azanwi dedicated himself to religious life as a child in Cameroon. His family was Protestant, but he had what he calls a “mystical experience” at age 6 and converted to Catholicism at age 8. As a teenager, he felt torn between entering the priesthood and becoming a neurosurgeon. When he moved to the U.S. to attend college, Azanwi began questioning his beliefs. He stopped attending daily Mass and barely made it to church on Sundays.
“I had been pious my whole life, so I decided to give myself a break and just be ‘normal,’’ he says with a laugh. “Still, something was missing. I still felt that initial call to become a priest.”
Azanwi contacted the campus minister, canceled his spring break trip to Jamaica and accompanied a few Capuchin brothers on a retreat to Philadelphia. He joined the friars in 2014 and is currently a bioethics graduate student at Harvard Medical School.
He says his brothers of the cloth are as much a part of his family as his blood relatives.
Domanski agrees. After the death of his sister last year, friars not only comforted him but looked after his family in Cleveland when he was away.
As in all domestic situations, there are disagreements, but the brothers only have to look to their patron saint for guidance.
“The increase in my faith that’s resulted from being in this life cultivates a deep sense of peace within me,” Domanski says. “Perfect joy is something that Saint Francis talked about. There was a day when he was out traveling in the cold. He went to a friary, but they didn’t recognize him and turned him away. But Francis knew that God’s love was still there, and he was able to embrace his brothers who wouldn’t let him in. I’m a perfectionist. I like to have things my way, but there’s always that joyfulness that helps me let go.”