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Franciscan Ministry
Holy Bones!
A Ministry with Some Bark and a Little Bite

The smiles on the faces of these members of the Holy Bones baking team show how much they love their jobs.

Four days a week, in the industrial kitchen of a church in northern New Jersey, a team of bakers eagerly reports to their work stations. However, the baked goods that come out of the oven aren’t found on restaurant dessert trays, but rather at dog parks and doggie daycare.

Welcome to Holy Bones – a non-profit ministry at St. Mary’s Church in Pompton Lakes that provides skills-training and employment opportunities to a community of young adults with developmental and intellectual challenges who produce dog-shaped 

biscuits and other canine treats in an environment that, according to John Aherne, OFM, offers “great joy, meaning, and purpose” to the participants. St. Francis of Assisi is probably smiling down from the heavens!

Each batch of biscuits and bite-size bits – made of all-natural, preservative-free ingredients in peanut butter, sweet potato and chicken flavors – are baked with a cup of laughter, dash of friendly banter, and measure of encouragement that produces a sense of accomplishment for the bakers.

With the help of volunteers and kitchen managers, this special-needs workforce is engaged in the process from start to finish – measuring ingredients, mixing batter, kneading and then molding dough with bone-shaped cookie-cutters, lining trays, packaging the finished product, and placing the Holy Bones label on the 8-oz. bags of bone-shaped and bite-size treats. Sales revenue is used to purchase ingredients, supplies and equipment, and to pay a wage stipend to the bakers – for most, their first job experience.

A Holy Bones baker cheerfully forms bone-shaped dog treats at her work station.
John Aherne, OFM, parochial administrator of St. Mary’s Parish, and Marie Cioletti, director of the special-needs ministry.

Holy Bones is a reminder that we are all blessed with God-given gifts, talents and skills. We may be at different levels, but everyone has gifts and talents to share and contribute,” said John, parochial administrator of the parish staffed by Franciscan friars.

“You have to look at their abilities, rather than their disabilities,” said Marie Cioletti, a retired special education teacher who helped establish Holy Bones and who also serves as director of the special-needs ministry at St. Mary’s Church, where she has been a parishioner for nearly 40 years. “The nature of Holy Bones is very Franciscan. It is a culture of inclusion and a sense of belonging for a community that cannot advocate for themselves and isn’t always accepted by society.”

Ms. Cioletti gives credit to another parishioner who introduced the concept after experiencing a similar operation in Delaware. When the friars and volunteers set up shop in the 

church’s basement kitchen, the ministry quickly drew the interest of special-needs young adults and their families.

“Our children go off to school and then there’s nothing for them to do [afterwards]. Holy Bones is a blessing. It has made a big difference in the lives of our children. I use social media to spread the word and encourage people to purchase Holy Bones products. The support has been remarkable,” said Kristine Paxton, a volunteer whose daughter, Kimberly, is a baker.

Lois Scian says it changed the life of her son, Steven: “He looks forward to coming [to Holy Bones] every Wednesday. It has boosted his self-esteem. It teaches a lot of different skills, and 

Canines clamoring for Holy Bones treats lined up at the sales tent at a local Paws in the Park event.

provides an enjoyable environment. He loves being with his friends.”

Camaraderie is one of the reasons the participants can’t wait to start the workday. Making treats for their four-legged friends is another.

“I have made new friends and like having fun while we work. I feel important when I make something special for dogs,” said James, who, like most of the bakers, joined the Holy Bones team when the ministry opened for business in September 2022 after the friars, parish staff and volunteers spent five months securing U.S. Department of Agriculture approvals and completing administrative start-up tasks.

Keeping up with the demand for the doggie treats was part of the ministry’s growing pains, due largely to the aging, temperamental oven in the church kitchen. But the Franciscan friars kept the assembly line moving, says John, by purchasing a 10-shelf commercial oven that enabled the bakers to double their production to an impressive weekly output of 500 8-oz. bags that are sold at over 20 retail partners (animal hospitals, pet centers, cafes, coffee and gift shops) in Pompton Lakes and surrounding communities.

Treats come in three flavors – peanut butter, sweet potato and chicken – and are packaged in 8-oz. bags emblazoned with the Holy Bones logo and label.

Online sales at holy-bones.org are booming thanks to a social media presence and business plan created as a volunteer project by students of nearby William Paterson University. Most of the bakers are also involved in the sales end of this enterprising ministry, proudly wearing their custom aprons with the hand-embroidered Holy Bones name when they’re selling product outside St. Mary’s Church after Sunday Masses, and at community venues throughout the year, such as farmer’s markets, craft fairs and seasonal festivals.

For bakers like Andrew Picirillo – who loves stamping the rolled-out dough with the bone-shaped cookie-cutter – and Laura Cromley – who is meticulous about filling the entire space of a tray before popping it in the oven – Holy Bones has become an important part of their world.  

“We are providing an environment where they can grow, learn, take pride in their achievements, and realize they are productive and valued members of the community,” said Ms. Cioletti. 

Margaret Wagner, a volunteer, added, “I love how happy they are to come to work. It gives them a purpose in life. They’d come here every day if they could.”

Photos courtesy of Holy Bones Facebook page.

Content for this article compiled and written by Steve Mangione.

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