FRANCISCAN FRIARS Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist

June 20, 2019

Cord-makers learning the ropes


PHOTOS BY TONI CASHNELLIRookies Joni and Gary Mataitis working with “Bernie’s Machine”As 31 strings feed through dozens of clacking parts, what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. This is what Joni and Gary Mataitis have learned in the five months they’ve spent learning to run a cord-making machine.

 “It’s always something new,” says Joni, such as, “A bearing came off. A bobbin has flown out. A spring came off. Screws have come off. All the threads have broken at one time or another. So many things can go wrong to make something so simple.”

Bernard Jennings on the job in 2014.Yet here they stand in the basement of St. Clement Friary, fiddling with this cranky contraption when they might easily be enjoying a relaxing retirement. Last fall they were happily occupied elsewhere, donating time to community causes and volunteering at St. Anthony Shrine. CPA Gary has also been helping several friaries with their books.

But they answered the call when St. Clement Guardian Frank Jasper asked them to check out the machine on which the late Br. Bernard Jennings made cords for habits. Long neglected, “It was dirty, but it was threaded and ready to go,” says Frank, who spent several days cleaning it up.

In October Joni and Gary, a congenial couple always ready for a challenge, took their first look at what they call “Bernie’s machine”. Friar Norbert Bertram, who knows a thing or two about cord- and habit-making, showed them how to use it.

They were off and running.

Bernie helped

Gary takes stock of the supplies.Since January they’ve spent most Mondays at St. Clement, working with Frank to unravel the mysteries of this spidery apparatus. They approached the machine with a mixture of shock, awe and suspicion.    “It was fascinating,” Gary says. “The sound reminded me of a rollercoaster.”

The shock and awe wore off, but not the suspicion.

 “It has a mind of its own,” Gary says.

 “Sometimes it gets really mean,” says Joni.

Couple and cord-maker came to an uneasy truce brokered by the spirit of Bernie, whose photograph hangs on the wall facing the machine. During the day their comments are directed as much to that picture as to the work itself.

Despite their trepidation, Gary says, “Frank had faith in us that we could do it.”

This particular cord-maker, built in 1964 and powered by electricity, sat idle after  Top, Joni uses a paintbrush to clear “dust bunnies”; above, Frank Jasper, OFMBernie’s health declined. A skilled tailor and cord-maker since the 1940s, he died in 2017, weeks after a cancer diagnosis. In his heyday, Joni says, “Bernie was making hundreds of yards at a time” and selling cords to Franciscans around the hemisphere. To date this couple’s best effort is “44 yards of perfect cord – such a good feeling.”

She gestures to the core of the machine, “where the magic happens.” Ten strings are pulled down through the center. Strands from 31 spools of cotton feed upwards and across, like spokes of a wheel, to meet it. Then, voila! A shuttle picks up the outer string and binds it around the “filler” to create a cord – kind of like hair being braided.

The finished cord flows from the bottom of the machine, so “you don’t know it’s bad until it comes out over here,” says Joni. Initially, “It wasn’t hard to learn the general operation. You learn as you go.” One of their refinements was the simple but ingenious idea of mounting a mirror below so they can they can monitor the output.

Making progress

They routinely check notes from Bernie, handwritten prompts about suppliers, customers, pricing and washing instructions he taped to the walls and furniture. Cord-makers are essentially baby-sitting a machine that is hypnotically repetitious, slightly more exciting than watching paint dry, but much noisier – one reason this is not a Top 10 career choice among friars.

Top, repairs are a challenge; above, a perfect cord is a beautiful thing.“Bernie would do 33 yards an hour,” Frank says, “and Joni and Gary crank out about 11 yards an hour,” with 5 yards required for the average habit.  “They’ve reached a point where they are better than I am at this.” They sent the first 100 yards to the Poor Clares and are working on orders for many more.

“We’ve messed up a lot of cords along the way,” Frank admits. “The machine will be running and you don’t realize it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do” because a spool of thread ran out. “We’ve broken the machine every which way we could possibly mention; it’s typical when you’re dealing with old stuff like this. Gary and I have fixed it a couple of times, but Joni is much better at spotting the problems. She’s got an eye for that sort of thing.”  Whatever she suggests, such as, “Should we change the bobbin?”, husband Gary knows the appropriate answer is, “Yes, dear.”

Using bull clips and a generous supply of leather Bernie left behind, the resourceful couple has learned to make do with what they’ve got. “The most complicated thing was to change the belt” and re-tie the strings in the center core, Joni says. “It was challenging.”

So far, their only reward for the work is a free lunch at St. Clement – that, and a little recognition. According to Gary, “We met a Brother the other day and he said, ‘You’re the cord people.’” Joni amends that to, “We’re the ‘Cordians’.”

They are convinced Bernard Jennings has their back. “He’s watching over us,” Joni says, addressing his photo nearby:

“Bernie, are you going to be nice to us today?”

(For information about costs and orders, email:

Still pilgrims on a journey


Decades ago, they took the road less traveled.

On this appropriate occasion, Memorial Day, the paths of 17 Jubilarians have converged in this celebration at majestic St. Monica-St. George Church in Cincinnati. Today, milestones will be marked. And friars will pause to reflect on the journeys that brought them here.

A trumpet fanfare from Bill Farris accompanies the arrival of the guests of honor, being celebrated for their commitments as recent as 25 years and as long ago as 80. Added together, their years since profession and ordination total 1,015. In the eyes of onlookers, their actual service can never be measured.

In listing the Jubilarians, “We missed Miles [Pfalzer],” the senior of the province, says celebrant Mark Soehner. Miles, who was born in 1920, made first profession in 1939 – 80 years ago. A milestone, indeed.

Homilist Greg Friedman, himself a 50-year Jubilarian, filters the readings from Deuteronomy, Romans and Luke through his own experience as a pilgrim and guide to pilgrims in the Holy Land.

“Where exactly are we?” is a question Greg heard recently from a man visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

He was speaking literally, but Greg believes “the dynamic of pilgrimage is a wonderful model for the spiritual life. Today, as we celebrate ‘the mystery of God’ in the lives of our friar-Jubilarians, we can fittingly ask, ‘Where exactly are we?’”

The experience of any pilgrim is a synthesis of place, events (or stories), and spiritual energy “that can draw us deeper into the mystery of God.”

For Jubilarians, the “places” are many – where they lived in childhood, where they served in all those years on the journey of being a friar. From those places come the stories they tell – the good news they preach by word and by example. Some stories are happy, and others are “stories of struggles, of failure, and also where God was at work.”

The spiritual energy Greg describes is divinely given. As the late pilgrimage guide and author Roch Niemier once wrote, what we learn on pilgrimage is that we must depend on God alone, when “we can release the spiritual energy that can draw us deeper into the mystery of God.”

When Greg again asks, “Where are we?”, he is looking beyond today’s celebration. He’s looking down the road, to the friars’ future pilgrimage as a U.S. fraternity that “will now be a new Franciscan adventure into places which we cannot yet imagine. I know that some among us are fearful about that journey,” but he also suggests that “our Jubilarians can be not just pilgrims, but guides as well.”

Those years of experience they’ve accumulated will come in handy – wherever the road may lead.

‘Where did the years go?’


PHOTO BY BILL FARRIS, OFMTop, the Jubilee Mass at St. Francis Seraph above, Brian Maloney, OFM (June 15, when Brian Maloney celebrated his Golden Jubilee at St. Francis Seraph Friary, his message to those who joined him was one of thanks.)

The year was 1969.  Neil Armstrong along with Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in Apollo 11 and Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

St. Paul VI was Pope and he had the formidable task of implementing the decisions of the Second Vatican Council.  And in New York, the Woodstock Festival was taking place.  In 1969, 23 young Franciscan friars processed into Holy Family Church in Oldenburg, Ind., to profess their first vows, having completed their year of novitiate.

God’s call comes to people at different ages, and mine came early.  It was clear, total, entirely spiritual, personal and loving.  I knew then, and I know now, just as certainly as I know my own name, that God exists, that He is Pure Love and that He invited me to a life of prayer and service to His people.  Within the depths of my soul, I replied, “yes.”

That was 50 years ago and in 2019, I celebrate my Golden Jubilee with you.  I am still in shock.  I can hardly believe that so many years have gone by.  It is a mystery to where time goes.

My personal story in not about me at all.  It is about God and His merciful and faithful love.  If I were a flower my story would tell of the gentle hand that plucked me from the soil and held me close to His heart.

If I were a bird, I would sing of the incredible Person who unlatched the cage and freed me to fly to heaven.  Or if I were a blade of grass, I would bend and sway in the breath of the wind.  But I am not any of the above.  I am just me, myself, and I can only speak the silent language of love and praise as He pleases to give it to me.

My call, my vocation, my life is real.  It can be seen in photos, home videos and in the hearts of God’s people, whom I am privileged to serve and call my friends.  Life seems to carry us along, minute by minute, day by day, year by year until we reach a milestone and we look back and say, “Where did the years go?”

Vows are very solemn things.  Vows are sacred and absolutely binding, a total commitment of mind, body, and spirit.

So while I celebrate 50 years, I most of all want to celebrate God.  He has been the anchor of my religious life, my magnet that draws me closer to Him.  God is my compass setting my life.

Bicycles bring freedom


TOP PHOTO BY BILL FARRIS, OFMTop; Young volunteer Ethan Chagaris with David West; above, Juniper Crouch, OFMAs he prepares to move from Houston to New Orleans, Juniper Crouch will spend one last weekend volunteering with a group that is dear to his heart. In April he discovered Freewheels Houston, a nonprofit that improves the lives of veterans, refugees and others by giving them a simple yet transformative gift.  “I wish I’d found out about it sooner,” he says. Three days a week, Freewheels helpers find and refurbish bicycles for those who need transportation to work or school.

“I usually go Friday and Saturday if I’m able,” Juniper says. “We repair the brake system, check the gear system, make the fine adjustments. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tightening something here or there.” Not everyone at Freewheels is an expert. “You’ve got people coming in who don’t know a thing about bicycles, and people who are pretty knowledgeable who can show them how to work on them.”

Established in 2015 by members of Christ the King Lutheran Church and local bike buffs, Freewheels has distributed about 600 safe, reliable used bicycles in Houston, one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country. “We’ve got the United Nations” in terms of immigrants, Juniper says. “Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, African, Filipino, Hispanic. You name it and they’re here. Many of them have no means of getting around other than the transit system, so this gives them a little freedom.”

The son of an automobile mechanic, Juniper has been tinkering with bikes since the 1940s and currently rides a 21-speed model he found at a Goodwill store. “Whenever I get one now I tear it down and clean it up so I know what I’ve got is working.” It’s not hard, he says, “once you understand what each piece does and how it’s connected.”

At 85, he’s busy as Provincial Spiritual Assistant for Secular Franciscans and does more driving than pedaling. “I don’t ride in the wintertime; the cold is too hard on my hands. But I ride a lot when I can.”

(Learn more about Freewheels Houston at:

Send comments or questions to:


FRANCISCAN FRIARS Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist

Gary takes stock of the supplies.Since January they’ve spent most Mondays at St. Clement, working with Frank to unravel the mysteries of this spidery apparatus. They approached the machine with a mixture of shock, awe and suspicion.    “It was fascinating,” Gary says. “The sound reminded me of a rollercoaster.”

Office of Communications Province of St. John the Baptist