Heads turned as Louise Charnock moved along the line of men and women standing before the altar at St. Joseph Catholic Church. The petite woman pressed a small replica of a colorful 13th-century icon, called a San Damiano cross, into each outstretched hand.
In exchange, they pledged their lives to follow Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi as members of the Secular Franciscans, an order that dates back to the saint himself.
The service, held Nov. 21, was a rite of profession for 11 new members. Older members renewed their promises, a tradition for the Augusta group. There are some 18,000 in the United States and about 300,000 worldwide, said Marie Amore, vice minister of the national fraternity, during a telephone interview from her home in Clinton Township, Mich.
Members strive for simplicity and follow gospel values.
Francis heard Christ say from the San Damiano cross, "Go rebuild my church, which as you see is falling into ruin," said Ms. Charnock, minister of formation for Secular Franciscans in Augusta.
He took the mission literally and began to restore the San Damiano church itself. But Christ's word had a fuller meaning: Francis was called to be a reformer.
The saint established orders for single men and women in the early 1200s. When married people began knocking on the monastery doors, he started the Third Order, which became the Secular Franciscans, in 1221.
A person has to be attracted to the same things that attracted Francis -- his love of God, people and all Creation. He was down to earth, said Ms. Amore. "Francis's ideals must speak to your heart and resonate with you."
The members are all here for the same reason, said Mrs. Charnock. "We were all called."
She was active in the Crusillo renewal movement in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and in the Diocese of Savannah for about 18 years but suddenly felt that it was time to move on to something else. She heard about the Secular Franciscans, met one, went to a meeting and knew immediately it was right for her.
"It was one of those mystical things," she said. She professed in 1994.
Charleen Luther, who received the cross at the St. Joseph ceremony, said that she admires the saint's simplicity and his powerful, never-ending love for the Lord.
A single woman, she said she considers the Franciscan rite of profession the high point of her life. "I equate it with getting married."
Ms. Luther, a Medicare clerk at Mullins Pathology and Cytology Laboratory, lives behind St. Mary-on-the-Hill Catholic Church. She was born into the parish. She stopped going to Mass after graduation from Aquinas High School, however, but started attending again in 1993. She heard about the Secular Franciscans about the same time but wasn't interested then, she said.
She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996. She spent a lot of time in shock, re-evaluating her life. She also became more committed to the pro-life movement. "It definitely has a place in the Franciscan order," said Ms. Luther, who is head of the justice and peace commission for the Augusta fraternity, or chapter.
In April 1997 she entered the Secular Franciscans' six-month inquiry phase. She was a candidate for a year, a period of formation for members of the order.
Formation materials cost about $15. Members give nominal financial support to their fraternity, said Ms. Amore.
Being a Secular Franciscan "really seems like something that I've looked forward to all my life -- a chance to make a public commitment to the Lord," said Ms. Luther.
She wears a wooden Tau cross, another Franciscan symbol, everywhere she goes, she said. "I even sleep with it."
The order spreads by word of mouth; there's no recruitment effort. "Many of us were inspired by Franciscans we have known," said Ms. Amore.
Members follow a way of life, called a rule, but there are differences between secular and religious orders. Religious orders take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; Secular Franciscans make promises to live by gospel values. "Religious live in convents or monasteries; we have jobs," said Ms. Amore.
Part of the Secular Franciscan vocation is to bring Christ to the world. Another part is to support, encourage and inspire other members of the local fraternity.
There are two fraternities in Georgia: St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Augusta with 17 members, seven of whom professed at last week's ceremony; and Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, which has 16 members, said Ms. Amore. Some fraternities, however, are much larger -- her own in Detroit, St. Bonaventure, has 350 members -- but the size is not an indication of strength, she said.
The Augusta fraternity will sponsor five of the 11 who professed Saturday in a new fraternity in Aiken. The Aiken group, the fourth in South Carolina, is named in honor of St. Clare, said the Rev. Tom Evatt, pastor of St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken. He will be the spiritual assistant for St. Clare.
Most people have an affection for St. Francis, second only to St. Nicholas, who might get top billing with children, he said.
The Rev. Evatt, a bearded mountain of a man, has been a member of the order for about 30 years. He professed when he was 14 years old and later became a priest.
Franciscan sisters taught him in Greenville, S.C., he said. He was also influenced by some friends in his parish who were Secular Franciscans. "I saw them as extremely powerful role models in terms of their spirituality," said the Rev. Evatt.
Ann McAdams of Evans, married and the mother of two grown children, has known about St. Francis all her life. She grew up in St. Francis, Ky., and went to St. Francis of Assisi Church and School, she said.
But she didn't learn about the order until a friend in Augusta, Secular Franciscan Donna Bokesch, noticed a picture of her Kentucky church on the wall and told her about it, said Mrs. McAdams.
The fraternity has helped her grow closer to God and in prayer, she said. The reflections that come from the gospel seem to carry over more into her life. "There is more of an awareness of what is the right thing and the wrong thing to do in life," she said.
She is more concerned now about how she thinks of others and talks to them, of how she treats people at work -- she is a customer-service representative at Jey Willis State Farm Insurance -- and of how she lives life in general, she said. "I have a long way to go, but it is such a neat support group. It is very encouraging to be part of a group that cares so much about how they live their life."
For more information, call (800) 372-6247 (Francis) or 855-0906.
Virginia Norton covers religion for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dante, Giotto, Michelangelo, St. Louis, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Joan of Arc, Ferdinand and Isabella, Christopher Columbus, St. Thomas More
John Palestrina, Franz Liszt, Charles Gounod
Andre Ampere, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur
John Michael Talbot, Arlo Guthrie
Source: Franciscan timeline, www.umbrars.com/assisi/fralinks.html