By Eli Pacheco

Time and space. Fellowship and opportunity. 

Those in need can find these precious resources when they cross the threshold at Franciscans Downtown in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.  

Franciscans Downtown is a ministry of presence, a place where people can come and tell their stories – and hear the stories of others. It offers meals and companionship to its guests: the homeless, the lonely, and other passersby longing for connection. 

A growing community hub 

Nestled in prime real estate amid 50 downtown shops and restaurants, Franciscans Downtown opened in a former clothing store in 2014. Its founder, Br. Placid Stroik, OFM, a Stevens Point native, envisioned it as a simple place for people to eat and be. 

The offerings started small: some light refreshments and conversation (the main course). As the community grew, Franciscans Downtown began offering larger meals. Today Franciscans Downtown is a community hub – a rare free place for people to gather as the availability of third places continues to decline across the country.  

“We’re not social workers,” said Br. Placid, who works with a band of volunteers to meet the community’s needs. “Our focus is to provide opportunities to enjoy company with each other and conversation.”

A friar sits next to a visitor at a round table

At Franciscans Downtown, volunteers and friars like Br. Finian Zaucha welcome guests to sit and converse with each other. (Photo courtesy of Franciscans Downtown)

'Truly welcoming and life-giving' 

Franciscans Downtown wouldn't exist without its volunteers, including the Secular Franciscans and Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. Mary Jo Holzhaeuser has served there since 2021. She spends time with visitors, helps with dishes and cleaning, and provides a meal now and then. She and her husband manage some day-to-day operations. 

She says she is taught something new every day she serves. 

“I learn about human dignity and how to cherish and nurture it, material generosity and generosity of spirit, material poverty and poverty of spirit, and about what it means for a place to be truly welcoming and life-giving,” she said. 

Its location and mission have led to unexpected gifts. A curious doctor who stopped to inquire about the center returned to offer healthcare services to guests. When Franciscans Downtown wanted to expand its food services, a plumber offered to install a new kitchen sink for free.  

Chairs and canned goods are donated just as they are needed. And a gifted organ led to an Advent concert for 60 guests, with more performances potentially planned for Easter and Christmases to come.  

Through the friars’ expertise, an arts program has emerged. The late Br. Brendan Wroblewski, whose work adorns the walls, brought photography. Br. Larry Janowski conducted poetry sessions, with 10 to 12 people attending. Br. Jim Gannon, OFM, would bring other friars in to share their gifts and time, too. 

Members of the community are not forgotten, even in death. Franciscans Downtown holds a memorial service in November for people who have passed away since its opening.

A friar plays ring toss with guests.

Franciscans Downtown offers books, coffee and tea, and sometimes games. In this photo, Br. Placid tries his hand at ring toss. (Photo courtesy of Franciscans Downtown)

Potential for ministry 

There are other opportunities for ministry in Stevens Point. 

“I have responsibilities as a chaplain,” Br. Placid said. “If there were two friars from other places, I would petition to open a friary for three people who could work at Franciscans Downtown. There is plenty of pastoral work in the area, too.” 

It is a prime location for a friar in initial formation to have an exceptional experience. 

“In places like New York, you might serve at a breadline and have contact with homeless people,” Br. Placid said. “Here, you have an extended opportunity to talk to people and develop a relationship.” 

The lower level at Franciscans Downtown is a vast, carpeted area once used for tuxedos. Br. Placid senses untapped potential there: a pilgrimage center to enlighten people about St. Francis and St. Clare. 

“We’re trying to be open about everything,” Br. Placid said. "We are going to let the people tell us what to do. No research is needed. We wanted to be with the people, and that is how we will learn how to respond.” 

‘They bring people together’ 

This spring will mark Franciscans Downtown’s 10th anniversary. At its five-year celebration, Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza lauded the services Franciscans Downtown provided. 

“They bring people together,” he told the Stevens Point News then. “It is an underserved segment of society that can get together and feel welcome. That is what Stevens Point is all about, acceptance and a safe place to feel welcome, and that is what the Franciscans do.”