News article from 2004

New Church Vows To Accept Everyone

Catholic Mission Opens In Downtown Lauderdale

December 31, 2004By Lisa Bolivar Special Correspondent
 
Jesus Christ never asked those he ministered to about their religion or sexual preference, and neither does Father Joseph C. Spina.

Spina, a member of the Order of Saint Francis, is a friar with the Franciscans of Fort Lauderdale. He and about six others opened a new National Catholic Church mission Christmas Eve that vows to warmly welcome anyone and everyone who crosses its threshold.

"It is a Catholic church without all of the human-made laws," said Spina, who is known as "Father Joe." "We welcome those that are divorced, separated or of alternative lifestyles, and basically that's the motto of the church `love without judgment.'"

The Mission of Saint Francis and Clare celebrated its first Mass at 10 p.m. Christmas Eve, and will conduct services at 5:30 p.m. every Sunday at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, 441 NE Third Ave. in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

"We decided on Christmas Eve because of the whole point of Franciscanism and the birth of Christ, the word made flesh and when God came among us," Spina said. "It was just very appropriate that we do this."

"Other than letting people know that God's love isn't exclusive to those of us who are Christian even, this is our way of remembering what Jesus said; `do this in memory of me,' when he gave himself to us in the form of bread and wine, body and blood," Spina said.

Spina and three other Friars, Fathers Vincent Treglio, Joshua Winters and Robert Ray, along with brothers Paul Tricola, Richard Smith and Jack Fleshner, are digging deep into their own pockets to fund this new parish.

Bishop Terry G. Villaire of Holy Angels National Catholic Church in Wilton Manors is wholeheartedly behind the new mission. He remembers that after Father Joe appeared at his mission, it didn't take long for people to join his cause.

"Father Joseph Spina has been a Franciscan in the community for about 15 years and has worked particularly with people in nursing homes and (assisted living facilities), and continues to do that," Villaire said. "When four other Franciscans joined us, they formed a community and Father Joseph was elected their superior ... and they banded together to follow Saint Francis' rule and lifestyle."

Villaire said the group began searching in Fort Lauderdale for a location to begin a new mission, and that is when the Rev. James Wood opened his doors to them.

 

"They discovered the Evangelical Lutheran Church on Third Avenue and the pastor graciously invited them to share his facility," Villaire said, adding that the new mission will be under the protection of the National Catholic Church and will join four other parishes already established in Florida.

Wood said it was natural to welcome the new mission into his church, which at one time had been Saint Anthony's Catholic Church. "We brought it here brick by brick in the '40s and it was rebuilt," Wood said.

"They are trying to spread the word of God, and as a community of Christ we all join together in many different ways to spread the word of God," Wood said. "And it's a wonderful gift when we can do it together as brothers and sisters in Christ."

Spina said he targeted downtown because of the development happening there.

"Downtown Fort Lauderdale area is going through a tremendous expansion and regrowth," he said, adding that he wants to bring people who have ceased to observe their faith back into the church family.

"We are not trying to capture people; we just want people to return to church, we just want them to have the opportunity," he said.

Rick Stofer has known Father Joe for more than a decade and said he is going to follow the Franciscans to their new mission.

Stofer, who was raised Protestant, said that Spina lives by his convictions.

"He really tries to live what Christ taught ... he's just a very, very wonderful person," Stofer said. "I've always loved Father Joe's sermons, because they are so down to earth; it's a nice ecumenical feeling."