When Father Al Hirt, OFM, was a child growing up in Batesville, Indiana, the Franciscan friars who ran St. Louis Church seemed omnipresent in the small Midwestern town. Perhaps it had to do with the town’s size in the 1950s (just over 3,000 residents), or maybe the friars’ distinctive brown robes made them stand out more. Either way, for a young Al, they certainly left an impression.
“As a child, I didn’t know there was any other kind of priest,” he recalls. “The friars who served my parish during my upbringing were friendly, happy, good men.” Father Al’s parents raised his brother and him to be fairly involved in parish life, and by the time he reached seventh grade, he was already considering the priesthood. Six of the 84 graduates of his eighth-grade class went on to attend high school seminaries.
Just before turning 14, Al started high school at St. Francis Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. He went on to Duns Scotus College in Southfield, Michigan, and, after two years there, entered the novitiate in Oldenburg, Indiana, in 1970. Father Al made his solemn vows as a friar in 1974 and was ordained a priest in 1977. Following his ordination, Father Al’s journey as a Franciscan took him to St. Mary of the Angels Church in New Orleans for his first assignment. His work ministering to the congregation of St. Mary of the Angels was eye-opening and formative. “This was an African American parish, and I found myself surprisingly comfortable in this new environment of Deep South life,” he says. “Early on, I worried that my more rural, all-White upbringing would make it difficult for me to be effective in an urban setting, in a culture all new to me. However, people were very encouraging, accepting, and willing to help me adjust.”
After four years in New Orleans, Father Al moved on to become pastor at St. Joseph Church in Kansas City, Missouri, a parish steeped in African American heritage and history. The parish was founded in 1910 as St. Monica Mission for Colored Catholics. Following a parish merger in the 1990s, the church returned to its original name of St. Monica.
A Little Bit Goes a Long Way
Father Al spent “nine wonderful years” at St. Joseph (St. Monica) before being elected the vicar for St. John the Baptist Province in 1990. “I truly missed the pulse of life in African American ministry,” Father Al says. “Sunday worship now seemed so subdued and orderly.” In 1999, after his time as vicar, Father Al started a new chapter in his life as a friar, this time at the University of Cincinnati’s Newman Center. He spent over two decades ministering to university students before taking on his latest role as pastor of St. Francis Seraph in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
As a Franciscan, Father Al is right where he wants to be at St. Francis Seraph, where he ministers to a diverse congregation in an urban setting—an environment with its fair share of both joys and challenges. “Over-the-Rhine is in the throes of renewal, but it is also home to many who are homeless, addicted, suffering from mental health issues, unemployment, and lack of a good education,” says Father Al. “Our parish tries to be an ‘all are welcome’ kind of place. For several years now (before I came), the church has been open seven days a week, 9–5, for people to come in and sleep in the pews, use the bathrooms, and rest from the heat or cold. Oh yes, this has its problems! But I ascribe to Pope Francis’ vision that parishes should be ‘field hospitals.’ This is where the wounded come, not the perfect.”
Situated on either side of the parish are the St. Anthony Center and St. Francis Seraph School. And just like the parish, both are crucial parts of the community. The St. Anthony Center houses multiple nonprofits that provide service to those in need and includes a soup kitchen, laundry service, and shower facilities. Parishioners of St. Francis Seraph volunteer at various ministries within the St. Anthony Center and at the elementary school as tutors and mentors. “This is an area to which I point people: If you want to help people break cycles of poverty, start with children,” says Father Al. “Wherever you live, there is probably an urban school who could use an hour or two of your time helping tutor, helping a child to learn to read.”
Father Al loves working in an urban setting but, after all, he is a Franciscan, and the beauty of God’s creation is never far from his mind. “Living and working in the inner city has its drawbacks,” he says. “I used to enjoy sitting on a front porch, cutting grass, and tending to a small garden. I now live near a parking lot with a few herbs planted in pots. I appreciate that I can go to the parks, that Cincinnati does have a good park system. Our parish and school do a great job with flower boxes all around our buildings. A little beauty goes a long way.”
After spending many years as a friar, Father Al has not tired of the Franciscan charism. To the contrary, the fire of his spirituality is burning brighter than ever. “At 72, I am still an idealist,” Father Al says. “I want to know the joy of living simply. St. Francis continues to inspire me to want a life among the poor, to live simply enough, to not hold on to lots of things. His love for all creatures—that sense of everything in the world as a brother or sister—is a spirituality that speaks to me. But I sometimes struggle with the ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ rats that find their way into our home!”