Sharing their love with children in need

April 2017 · Donor Stories

The idea was Sylvia’s. Driving home to Austin after a day trip to Comfort, Texas, she turned to her husband and said, “When one of us passes on, the other should see that it goes to Saint Francis.” That was in 1995, and Sylvia passed in 2007. A few months later retired Air Force Colonel Joe Brown donated the 18-inch tall bronze statue “Dancing Saint Francis” to Saint Francis Community Services, the ministry Sylvia and he have supported since 1969.

“I’m not sure how she found out about Saint Francis,” said Col. Brown. “We were stationed in Bossier City, Louisiana, at the time, and I think she heard about it through church. Sylvia liked that they took care of children from different states so she started sending donations regularly. We had our own nice family – three children – and she thought we could help some that were less fortunate. She was always a big supporter of Saint Francis.”

Col. Brown retired from the Air Force in 1979 after 28 years of service. He later went to work for the Texas State Department of Rehabilitation, determining client eligibility for Social Security disability benefits. Over the years, he and Sylvia maintained a close relationship with Saint Francis, even developing a friendship with the ministry’s president, The Rev. Canon Kenneth Yates and his wife Wanda.

“We went up to Salina for the service when Fr. Yates retired and Fr. (Philip) Rapp took over,” he said. “We went up again when Fr. Rapp left and Fr. (Edward) Fellhauer came in. On that visit, we toured the old campus and building outside of Salina (site of the current Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility) and were greatly impressed with all the activities available for the kids.”

One Sunday in 1994, the Browns drove over to Comfort, Texas, a small, historic community of roughly 2,300 people about 90 miles southwest of Austin. They attended St. Boniface Episcopal Church, then spent the afternoon wandering through town, exploring Comfort’s antique stores and specialty shops. One of those was a studio owned by local artist Rita Ann Harmon.

“She told us about Francis of Assisi and how she’d sort of had a vision one night,” said Col. Brown. “She woke up the next morning and started working on a statue of Francis dancing with joy. She finished the mold and had it cast. The finished piece was six feet tall and standing there in her studio. It was beautiful.”

Harmon also had a smaller, 18-inch version of “Dancing Saint Francis,” and Sylvia suggested that she and Joe buy it for each other for their 40th wedding anniversary. He liked that idea, so they returned to Harmon’s studio a year later and purchased the statue – their gift to each other. It was on that trip home that Sylvia came up with idea of giving it to Saint Francis Community Services when one of them passed on.

After Sylvia passed, Col. Brown continued to support Saint Francis – largely to honor his wife, to whom the ministry meant so much. When construction on the new Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) at Salina West began, Col. Brown contributed towards the meditation chapel.

Col. Brown and his family were in attendance when The Rt. Rev. Michael Milliken, Bishop of Western Kansas, consecrated Salina West’s Brown Family Chapel (in memory of Sylvia Brown). One son, David, was unable to attend, but the Browns’ other son, Mark Brown, M.D., made the trip. So did their daughter Zoe Lawson, along with her husband Kirk and their 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.

“Zoe wanted her kids to go so they could see what people can do when they choose to help others,” said Col. Brown. “She hopes it will inspire them to be citizens of value to the community. There are lots of people who need help in this world, and Saint Francis does a really good job at providing it.”

During the consecration, Col. Brown’s grandchildren sat near a bronze figure, a piece of art rich in meaning for their family. They saw the statue that represents the love their grandparents had for each other and the way they shared that love with children in need. They saw a saint dancing with joy in the Brown Family Chapel.