By Eli Pacheco 

Br. Jimmy Kernan, OFM, found abundant possibilities as he considered graduate school.  

But as the opportunities and ideas unfolded, Br. Ray Bucher, OFM, asked him a simple question that would guide his decision: What will you do for the poor?  

"It took me aback,” said Br. Jimmy, who earned a bachelor's degree in physics from St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan school in Western New York. “But I knew that was what this whole journey was about. How can I use the gift and talent that God has given me to help people on the margins of society uniquely?”  

In a few weeks, Br. Jimmy will take huge steps in discovering that.   

Br. Jimmy is close to finishing a Master of Engineering in molecular engineering. A student in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, his track is the computational modeling of materials. 

Computational materials science and engineering uses powerful computers to simulate how tiny building blocks, like atoms and molecules, come together to form materials. This helps scientists predict how materials will behave and find new, better ones without needing to build them in a laboratory first – a fast, cost-effective way to invent stronger, lighter or more efficient materials. 

By improving the quality of materials used in areas like construction, electronics, and energy storage, scientists can help address energy inequity. Think batteries that can store energy produced by the sun and wind, or a more efficient way to produce cement – a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Look at some of the big issues with energy equity, like climate change. Food scarcity is a result of energy inequity,” Br. Jimmy said. “They affect marginalized people most, by a landslide, when you look at migrant movements in the world right now.” 

Four friars wearing their habits stand in a street in San Francisco and smile at the camera

Br. Jimmy, second from right, is pursuing a degree in molecular engineering. (Photo courtesy of Br. Octavio Duran, OFM)

Into integral ecology 

As soon as his mortarboard returns to earth, Br. Jimmy’s mission will begin. He will move to Siena College in Loudonville, New York, to teach for one year as part of his formation.  

The school is developing the Laudato Si’ Center for Integral Ecology – an idea inspired by Pope Francis’ second encyclical “Laudato Si’,” which focuses on “caring for our common home” through a holistic movement for economic, environmental, political and social issues. 

Br. Jimmy will be on the conference circuit, building programs around sustainability, justice and care for creation issues. He will help Franciscan colleges and universities incorporate Laudato Si’ values into their communities. 

He will bring the Franciscan ideal of listening to the people who need help to determine how to help them. 

“It starts from being with and among people and hearing what they need, not telling them ‘We are coming here because you obviously need us’ or ‘this is what we are going to do for you,’” he said. “The Franciscan perspective is ‘let’s go be there.’” 

Two friars wearing masks bless a small chihuahua that is sitting in the basket of a mobility scooter driven by an older man wearing a mask

(Photo courtesy of Br. Octavio Duran, OFM)

Stay for dinner, become a friar 

When he graduated from high school, Br. Jimmy wanted to become a priest. His experience at St. Bonaventure University led him to consider the friars. 

He met friars when he attended Mass on the Allegany, New York, campus. Why don’t you stay for dinner? they asked. He stayed for much more. Before he knew it, Br. Jimmy found himself in Silver Spring, Maryland, for his postulancy and in Santa Barbara, California, for novitiate. 

After novitiate, Br. Jimmy became one of the first friars to go through the Brothers Walking Together program, an immersive 10-month experience that takes student friars out of their comfort zone and puts them at the service of the marginalized. He worked at St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco, serving the poor in the Tenderloin district. That is where he heard Br. Ray give a presentation on “Joy in Franciscan Life.” (“It made me want to go back and study theology first,” Br. Jimmy said of that event.) 

“Franciscans are meant to be in the world,” Br. Jimmy said. “We are to be with and among people where they are. It’s something we do as friars, and hopefully we’ll do more of.” 

A headshot of a young smiling friar wearing his habit

Building a network of peers 

Franciscan life has prepared Br. Jimmy for undergraduate and graduate school and impacting the world. He has learned from and helped to guide others as they seek to impact the world in their professions. 

“A lot of that is building a network of my peers to work on projects and assignments together,” Br. Jimmy said. “That natural ability that comes for friars is something we work at – how do we bring people together to work?”

The Franciscan influence that helped to guide Br. Jimmy through academia – and impact fellow students around him – will serve him well as he brings a fresh perspective to integral ecology and helping others. 

He will do so motivated, educated and moved by the Spirit. He wouldn’t be on campus as “that friar guy” without support from friars and benefactors who seek to help him succeed. 

“It is an opportunity I have been grateful for because it has been because of friars who have allowed me to do this and do it so well,” Br. Jimmy said. 

Is God calling you to use your gifts and talents for the poor? Contact our vocation office to learn more about becoming a Franciscan friar.