CLICK HERE to view the photo album "Fran Heitzman"
Fran Heitzman’s roots at Pax Christi run deep. One could say that they’re even deeper than the roots of the four ash trees that Fran planted on the west side of the church years ago. Fran, who at one time owned a landscaping business, heard that a local bank had four ash trees they were going to rip out. Because he just couldn’t see those trees go to waste, Fran asked the bank if he could have them, went ahead and removed the trees, and planted them on Pax Christi’s grounds. People who know Fran know that this is how he operates: He sees that someone has something that they don’t want anymore, he gives it to someone who does, and he just does it because it makes sense.
Although Fran has been with Pax Christi from its very beginnings, there may be a few people who haven’t heard of him. If you’re a parishioner who hasn’t heard of Fran, maybe you’ve heard about Bridging—the organization he started. Or, if you listen to local radio, you’ve maybe heard an advertisement for one of the organization’s more prominent fundraising events—Bedrace for Bridging. Bridging has successfully served 90,000 Twin Cities households by providing everything a family needs to transition them from homelessness to a home. And, it all started with Fran at Pax Christi.
When Fran says that he has been with Pax Christi from the beginning, he truly means the beginning. The Bobcat from his landscape business was used to move the stone that is part of the church. He remembers well those initial phases of the church’s construction, and recalls the time when a couple of contractors from out of town were working on the interior of the church. It was the middle of winter, and Fran found out that the men planned to spend the night sleeping on the church floor. Fran thought the men should sleep in a bed, and so he opened his home to the men. The men not only had a bed to sleep in for a few nights, but also hot meals, and even lunches to take with them in the morning. Fran and his wife Jeanne wanted the men to be comfortable and have what they needed so they could successfully do their jobs the next day. Years later, Fran would apply a similar philosophy at Bridging. Bridging gives each family every household item that they need to comfortably get started, successfully run a household, and do it with dignity. Bridging is not just beds, it’s also linens, sofas, lamps, kitchen tables, chairs, dishes, utensils, and even small electrical appliances. Bridging will even move these items for the family if that’s what they need.
Before starting Bridging, Fran was a business person and entrepreneur, and early in his career ran a dry-cleaning business and then a landscape business. In the 1980s he worked part-time as Pax Christi’s custodian. He remembers those years of employment at Pax Christi very fondly and says that those were some of the best years of his life. His fondness for Pax Christi is reflected in the mementos that he keeps, including a program for the church’s 1985 dedication of the Shrine of St. Francis that Fran built. He also keeps a birthday card and Thanksgiving Day card from Pax Christi’s first pastor, Father Tim Power. The birthday card still makes Fran laugh, and in the Thanksgiving Day card, Father Tim acknowledges Fran’s work and influence at the church.
While Father Tim welcomed Fran’s many contributions to the Pax Christi community, he foresaw the logistical challenge of Fran’s budding ministry which involved distributing unwanted household items. It started when a Pax Christi parishioner wanted to give a crib to the church’s nursery. Fran told her that the nursery wasn’t in need of a crib, but that he would find a home for it. Fran reached out to a social service agency to find a place for the crib and that was it; if he could find a home for a crib, he could find a home for other unwanted items. Fran’s idea started to take root—if some people have things that they don’t need, why not give them to people who do? Initially Fran used Pax Christi as a temporary resting point for some of the items. After Father Tim saw the church’s interior becoming crowded with the many items, Father Tim realized that Fran’s new ministry was too big and too important to stay within the confines of Pax Christi. Thanks to Fr. Tim, he saw it was time to take this ministry to the next level outside of Pax Christi, expand the outreach to serve those in need throughout the Twin Cities, and in 1987 Bridging found a new home and began to build for the future.
When Fran started this endeavor, he didn’t realize what he was doing was a ministry—or even what a ministry was—until a fellow parishioner used the term to describe what Fran was doing. So how does a church ministry grow into a not-for-profit with 31 employees, 6,000 volunteers, and two locations that annually serves thousands? Is it leadership? When asked if he had always been a leader, Fran modestly shrugged his shoulders and said,
“I always just sort of saw what needed to be done and did it.” He had experience as a business person, which he thinks helped him get Bridging started, but attributes a great deal of Bridging’s success to his willingness to ask for things. Fran says, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Diana Dalsin, Bridging’s Manager of Community Relations, whole-heartedly agrees. Diana says that while the Twin Cities isn’t the poorest community, Bridging is able to help an unusually large number of people because of the generosity of community members including corporations, individuals, and other non-profits. They attribute their success to collaborating with a large number of corporations and partner organizations like Pax Christi Catholic Community. Recognizing how successful Bridging is at its mission, these partners are motivated to work hand-in-hand to ensure Bridging’s continued success.
When asked if he had any advice for others starting a ministry, Fran said, “Don’t try to do too much.” He said that focusing on a very specific need is best because it keeps it simple and you’re more likely to be successful. Even though there were a few bumps along the way, Fran was never afraid of failure. He felt there was no point in being afraid, saying, “Because God won’t let it fail.” At age 93, Fran goes to work each day because he loves hearing the stories of the people he helps, and the people that they in turn help. Fran said, “It’s like a rock being thrown in the water—it creates ripples.” The people helped by Bridging go on to do great things and positively influence the lives of others. And when asked if Fran had any other message for his fellow-parishioners, it was this: “Give us your stuff!”
CLICK HERE to learn more about Bridging and how you can "give them stuff."