The quality of life and health of many thousands of older adults on the Gulf Coast of Florida have been improved as the result of the work of Brother William Geenen, CSC, who, with first volunteer Molleen Pust, founded Senior Friendship Centers in 1973 in Sarasota County.
Brother William J. Geenen, C.S.C., the youngest of seven children, was born in 1930 in Appleton, Wisconsin. He entered the novitiate of the Congregation of Holy Cross as a brother in 1948 and professed his final vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience in 1952. After receiving his B.S. in education from St. Edwards’s University, Austin, Texas and a Masters in Education from Loyola University, Chicago, Brother Geenen spent the next twenty years as a teacher, counselor and administrator at Gilmour Academy, a primary-secondary school in Gates Mills, Ohio operated by the Brothers of Hoy Cross.
In 1973, Brother Geenen was in Sarasota, Florida on a student recruiting trip for Gilmour Academy and, while there, visited the father of a Holy Cross confrere who was dying in a local hospital. The dying man told Brother, “I don’t know what I am going to do. My wife will be all alone now but I guess she’ll just have to figure out something.” On his way back to Ohio, Brother Geenen made a wrong turn and, having discovered this, pulled into a park-like area to look at a map. While reviewing the map, an elderly man approached Brother’s car and began to pour out his life of loneliness, helplessness and sorrow.
A short time later, Brother Geenen spoke to the Provincial Superior about the possibility of starting a new Brothers of Holy Cross mission for the elderly in Florida. Permission was granted and a new ministry was born to serve arguably the most neglected yet important segment of our society.
On September 1, 1973, Brother Geenen returned to Sarasota with a typewriter, $79 and a determined spirit to create a more fulfilling and hopeful life for senior citizens. A local pastor temporarily provided an old house pending demolition for a new parish center. Brother Geenen then gathered a large group of interested people, mostly elderly, to discuss ideas about how best to help the elderly who were alone, had financial needs, social needs and even health needs. The community response was overwhelming. Many brought their woodworking, carpentry, painting and other talents to bring life to the old house.
What should this new program be called? A lot of discussion led to “Senior Friendship Center”. Brother Geenen looked at the volunteers and said, “Not Senior Friendship Center but Senior Friendship Centers because there’s going to be more than one.” The grand opening of the first Senior Friendship Center was held three and a half months later on December 15,1973. A volunteer staff was prepared with coffee and cookies to welcome 50 guests but over 400 registered on that first evening.
That was the beginning of a network of services with programs that quickly grew to include congregate and home delivered meals, senior centers social services, healthy aging clinics adult day services, caregiver resource centers, and volunteer programs. Today, Senior Friendship Centers can be found in six counties on the Gulf Coast of Florida: Sarasota, Charlotte, DeSoto, Lee, Collier and Manatee.
Editor's Note: Senior Friendship Centers' Founder, Brother William Geenen, CSC, died Saturday, May 14, in Sarasota.
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Senior Friendship Centers Founder Dies , Dale White, Sarasota Herald Tribune
Brother William Geenen Obituary, Brothers of Holy Cross South Bend, Indiana
Brother William Geenen Editorial, Sarasota Herald Tribune
Brother William Geenen's Gift Keeps on Giving, Kathy Silverberg, Sarasota Herald Tribune
Donations may be made to the Brother William Geenen Fund in the Senior Friendship Centers Foundation, to make memorial donation in his honor , click here.