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South Buffalo's Franciscan Center closing its doors after 38 years

The 2 1/2-story red brick house on the corner of Seneca Street and Roanoke Parkway in South Buffalo is closing its doors after 38 years as a safe haven for troubled young men.

Operators of the Franciscan Center Tuesday said it was time – after noticing a steep drop-off in the numbers of runaway and homeless young men who had either been directed or drawn to the center, to benefit from its renowned program of independent living skills.

"Today, if you will, despite the emotion, is a celebratory day," said Friar Joseph Bayne, executive director of the center, during a news conference Tuesday in the center.

Surrounded by staff, former residents and benefactors, Bayne said the center, which first opened its ministry doors in 1980, had fulfilled its mission.

"We're celebrating, here at the Franciscan Center, 38 years of ministry, a combination of the community, the Franciscans and our fabulous staff, over the years, of great men and women," said Bayne.

"We took care of over 4,000 young men who needed a safe place, a place where they could be mentored, a place where they grew and learned some life skills to either return to their families or to make it out there on their own," Bayne added.

The decision to close was not an easy one, but was arrived at with all due consideration, Bayne said.

"So many are asking why we had to announce our ceasing of services after 38 years. This wasn't a shoot-from-the-hip decision. Maureen, my assistant director, and I, have studied this probably for two years, but very, very seriously for a year. Our numbers of young men seeking help have gone down," he said.

"We were never into the numbers game. We were about quality care of runaway homeless youth and young men that needed a boost along the way, but in stewardship to the good, generous corporations and businesses ... I, and we, cannot continue to take in their very generous gifts when, at times, we have no residents, no young men," Bayne said.

Friar Joseph Bayne wipes away a tear as he tells the media of the closing of the Franciscan Center. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

James Olesky – who as a youth was counseled and housed at the Franciscan Center – spoke in glowing terms about his stay, which began almost a decade ago.

"The Franciscan Center was an absolute miracle to me," said Olesky, who now has a career with the state.

"These guys gave me a chance to understand who I am and who I truly want to become," Olesky said, of the staff at the center.

"I held two jobs, got my GED, got my college education. The biggest thing I've learned here is to be compassionate and caring to one another," Olesky said.

Restaurateur Louis Billittier, proprietor of Chef's on Seneca Street, has been a benefactor and supporter of the center for many years.

"I'm devastated, to be honest with you, but I know it's a celebration of the good things we've done. James is just one example," Billittier said.

"Youth came here for many years and they were lost, truly lost. Through Father Joe and his staff, through that tough love and Franciscan way, they found themselves. That's how I got involved. Joe came over and we've been doing spaghetti dinners for 20 years now," Billittier said.

Despite undertaking a study and reaching out to students at Canisius College to produce a video touting the center's program, Bayne said he could not fully account for why fewer and fewer youth were coming to the center.

"We served the community for 38 years, and we are proud. Our hearts are heavy, because I feel the issues are still out there. Young people still need help in struggle. I cannot explain why they are not coming. We did an awful lot of outreach," he said.

"I can't say why they're not coming other than our times, our community and our society have changed a lot, but we are closing because of good stewardship," Bayne said.

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