Friends of the Friars

Connor & Audrey Wakely

by Roxanne King

When then-engaged Audrey Nguyen and Connor Wakely completed their online marriage preparation course, they excitedly began calling parishes to schedule their wedding only to feel rebuffed when they learned they were looking at a one-to-two-year wait.

"But when we came to Annunciation [Parish], Father Charles [Polifka] welcomed us so warmly," Audrey said about the Capuchin Franciscan pastor. "It felt right and we got married here."

Now married about a year and a half and residing in Thornton with 11-month-old daughter Ava, they've become parishioners and dedicated volunteers at the inner-city Denver church. The Wakelys help the Capuchin friars who run Annunciation with the youth group and with the order's newest apostolate, the food truck ministry.

"It's a beautiful order," said Audrey, 25, a Denver native and cradle Catholic. "They've changed how we look at our faith."

The Capuchins' influence has been so profound, that Connor, 24, a transplant from Scottsdale, Ariz., who was baptized in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, is converting to Catholicism.

"They're down to earth and welcoming," he said about the friars. "Father Joseph [Elder] and Father Charles make religion different. They don't care if you're Catholic or not, they just want you to hear the word of God, the message of Jesus Christ. It's more about the relationship [with God].

"Even their habits show they're different," Connor said of the Capuchins' medieval-era brown hooded robes. "They look like they're from Star Wars! They get really weird looks from people. They don't mind getting questioned. They're about helping others."

"People can be intimidated by priests," Audrey said. "But when you meet a Capuchin you feel they're your friend.

"They are our friends - we hang out with them," she added. "They've really helped us to build a relationship with God by their actions more than by their words. We just got drawn to the Capuchins naturally by how kind and humble they are.

"We never thought we'd be volunteers or doing any of this," Audrey said, motioning to the basement room in the former Annunciation High School building crowded with some 50 teenagers who showed up that Friday night for a service project.

The teens were busily preparing lunches to be delivered by the Capuchins' food truck ministry that Sunday. Launched in November, the food truck goes downtown twice a month to sites where the homeless congregate. There, friars and volunteers hand out free lunches, typically consisting of wraps packed with lean meat and fresh veggies, water and hot coffee, and seasonal necessities such as hats, gloves and socks.

"It was eye-opening to see what the homeless community is like," Audrey said describing the couple's first experience assisting with the ministry. "We liked interacting with and putting a face to the homeless. I think a lot of times many of us try not to talk to them. The brothers really like talking with the homeless."

"I love doing it," Connor said. "I wish I could do it more often. You feel good-it's fun. I like helping people who don't have anything. Generally, they're grateful and kind."

The Capuchins have also enriched the couple's understanding of religious life. "They're really like a brotherhood, how they interact with each other, like a family," Audrey said. "They've shed a different light on religious life for us by their community life. It's an order that's relatable to everyday human life."