Brother Isidore Covers 20 Miles a Day on His Spiritual Trek

updated 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When the children of Claymont, Del., first laid eyes on Brother Isidore Corwin two years ago, "They thought he was Santa Claus," says Claire Moloney, a longtime resident. In fact the Franciscan friar has quite a lot in common with St. Nick: Isidore's bushy hair and chest-length beard are also snowy white, and he too travels thousands of miles each year dispensing gifts of love.

Brother Isidore's peregrinations take him no farther than the Claymont city limits, and his gifts are messages that come wrapped only in spirituality. But since he moved to the St. Francis Renewal Center, a 25-acre retreat north of Wilmington, Brother Isidore, 66, has become a fond, familiar sight in town, striding along in his brown robe, sneakers and baseball cap with the words GOD'S # 1.

"I usually walk about 20 miles a day," says the friar, who has missed only one outing (he was sick) since 1987. "I go different ways so I can meet different people each time I walk." One day it was a young Marine who fell into step with the friar. "He told me he had a bad drinking problem," the friar recalls. "He hadn't been to church in years. I told him to go back and ask God to help him, and he did."

Among the brother's favorite routes is the Philadelphia Turnpike, a four-lane highway. As he waves to the oncoming traffic, honking horns almost constantly return his greetings. A regular stop along the road is Jim's Shoe Repairs, run by Jim Shreves, who resoles the friar's leather sneakers and quenches his thirst with Gatorade. Nearby is Mrs. Moloney's house. A former nurse's aide and a widow, she recalls their first meeting a year ago. "One day, I had such good news and I kept wishing there was someone to share it with," she says. "Just then I saw Brother walking the road. I called to him. It was like Our Lord sent him to me."

More often it is Brother Isidore who hands out the glad tidings. His message to the folks he meets is always the same: " 'Love your neighbors as I have loved you.' Once people know this truth," he says, "the rest of life comes easy."

Yet life has been anything but easy for the benign brother. "Whoever my parents were, I do not know," he says. "They set me outside an orphanage with a note that said my name was Francis Robert Corwin." Francis spent his first 10 years in that Lackawanna, N.Y., institution. He went to Catholic church and was given a rudimentary education. Eventually he was transferred to a state school and farm, where he earned 50 cents a week baling hay. He ran away at 18, and for the next 22 years he worked on various Upstate New York farms, including one in Alliance where he stayed 15 years. "I more or less adopted the couple, Hubert and Shirley Finewood, as my parents," he says. "It became like my real home."

One Sunday in 1960, Francis, then 37, met a Franciscan missionary at a church bazaar. "I found out from him that you can become a brother and go to distant lands," he says. "That seemed like a wonderful idea to me." A year later he entered training at the Capuchin mission in Beacon, N.Y., to become a brother. (In the Franciscan order, brothers and priests can both administer Communion, but only priests can celebrate Mass or hear confessions.) He chose the name of Isidore, the patron saint of farmers. Four years later he took his final vows.

Because of his farming experience, Brother Isidore was sent to village missions in Zambia, where he planted orchards, taught the children their catechism and developed his penchant for hikes. Few roads connected the villages, so Brother Isidore and the local priest would deliver supplies on foot. It was strenuous work, but the friar loved it. "If I hadn't taken sick," he says of the recurrent bouts of malaria that finally forced him to return to the States in 1986, "I think I would have stayed on there." Brother Isidore convalesced for eight months back at the monastery in Beacon, and part of his therapy included long walks around town each day. By the time he was transferred to St. Francis's, where he lives with three priests and two seminarians, it had become a habit.

When he is not pounding the pavement to spread his message, Brother Isidore tends the mission grounds, where he has planted a garden and an apple orchard. As he works away, his thoughts often turn to his hard past. "Sometimes I miss having real parents," he says, "but I guess God just had other things in mind for me. Home is a place where you are close to God, and this is my home. When people see me out walking, I think they see love—they see the Christ in me. And when they smile, I see Christ smiling at me."

—Bonnie Johnson, Andrea Fine in Claymont

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