Friars at Schindlers' side felt own loss

Published March 23, 2005

They wear robes, sandals and cell phones.

And to be precise, they are friars, not monks.

For the past week, three members of a tiny ministry based in St. Paul, Minn., have been at the side of the Schindler family as it fights to have Terri Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted.

The three from Franciscan Brothers of Peace, which has just 10 total members, have appeared with Bob and Mary Schindler on the steps of the federal courthouse in Tampa, and outside Woodside Hospice in Pinellas Park.

They have come to Florida, they say, because they are staunch right-to-life supporters, because they can help raise money for the Schindlers, and because of what happened to Brother Michael.

In 1982, Michael Gaworski founded the order.

The fledgling group took over a former convent and the Brothers began collecting food and clothing for the needy, ministering to international survivors of torture, witnessing at a juvenile detention center and conducting sidewalk counseling at abortion clinics.

Gaworski suffered a heart attack in 1991 that left him in a condition similar to that of Terri Schiavo - with severe brain damage and dependent on a feeding tube for nourishment. For the next 12 years, the friars cared for Gaworski in their downtown St. Paul friary.

"Through his condition," Brother John Kaspari said Tuesday from St. Paul, "we came to embrace others in similar states."

Gaworski contracted pneumonia and died in 2003 at age 45.

"He would have required intubation to keep him alive," Kaspari said. "We chose not to go that route. His lungs were full of fluid."

The order, affiliated with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, became involved with the Schiavo case last fall after one of its members heard Bobby Schindler, Terri Schiavo's brother, speak at a National Right to Life convention in Washington, D.C. The Brothers offered their assistance.

Kaspari said that the Brothers have become close to the Schindler family and that although they have tried to visit Terri Schiavo, they have been denied access.

Besides moral support, the Brothers also offer an option to those who want to donate money to the Schindlers. Although funds are raised directly through the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation, private donations are not tax-deductible.

"But we are a tax-exempt organization," Kaspari said. "People send funds to us, and we turn it around and distribute the funds as needed. For instance, we recently ran a newspaper ad and used the funds to pay for it."

As for their dress, the Brothers wear robes - or more correctly, habits - "to depict the vow of poverty and simplicity," Kaspari said. "And to be a recognizable instrument of God."