Parishes must be like early Christian communities which reach out to help, Colm Fitzpatrick learns
Churches are often referred to as the ‘heart of a community’, but in order for this living, breathing muscle to continue to beat, the parish must sustain and support it. This is no easy task; and requires more than just showing up to Mass now and again – a flourishing parish is one where people of all ages and backgrounds are welcomed into a community of faithful and are encouraged to achieve their potential, all the while recognising the place of God in their lives.
At a point in history where religious belief is on the decline, many parishes are finding it increasingly difficult to draw their local community together but for Carlow’s Graiguecullen and Killeshin parish, this is a task that’s been met with great success.
With a plethora of varied ministries on offer, a free food parcel delivery service and even a parish-owned pool, it’s fair to say the goal of creating a tightly-knit community of believers here is going swimmingly.
Most of the outreach initiatives take place in and around St Clare’s Church, which attracts not only familiar faces who have been attending Mass for decades, but young people who are formed by the active and dynamic youth ministry present there.
“Young people play a massive role here, they’re so important. People associate our parish with young people. So, from Sunday-school leaders to readers, young ministers of the Word, Eucharistic ministers, all our choirs, we have two children choirs and a youth choir, full of young people. They’re on a rota for all those ministries and we’ve loads of altar servers. They’re fantastic. They’re really so committed and responsible and they come to all our Masses,” Youth Ministry Co-ordinator of the parish Cathríona Kelly, tells The Irish Catholic.
The vibrancy of young people in the parish is such that a youth Mass is held each month in the church, where young people greet parishioners, make prayer cards, and even count any money donated afterwards. Throughout the year, they also travel on pilgrimages and retreats where they learn more about themselves and their faith. For Cathríona, it’s vital that young people begin to develop the sense that contributing to and helping out in their local parish isn’t a burden, but an important part of their social life.
“We normalise everything, it’s not very high Christology – it’s very much meeting them where they’re at, figuring out where they’re at in their stage of faith, if they’re at any stage of faith at all, and these are kids that have been confirmed by us. We just try to figure out where they are, bring them on as much as we can step by step,” she says, adding that each child plays a distinctive role in the parish.
“We have kids that are very quiet and they never like to read but they’ll sing in the back row of the choir. We have kids that can’t sing but they’ll altar serve or they’ll make prayer cards with me in the parish and put them out on the noticeboards and decorate the church. It’s just using their gifts and talents really and figuring out where their place is in the parish.”
We thought we were failing for a long time…now, we see those kids and they’re back as adults
While it’s often claimed that young people today no longer care about religion, Cathríona explains that if they have an opinion on it, then they’re interested in it. By building upon this interest, they can mature spiritually and eventually give back to the parish, even when it seems as now young adults that they’ve abandoned the faith.
“You worry that you miss an opportunity with them – maybe you could have given them something more or maybe they needed something different than what we gave them. But really, if we give everyone the same and they know that they’re welcome, no matter what time in their lives that they’re welcome back, I think that’s enough for us.
“But it took a long time for us to get to that stage. We thought we were failing for a long time because we wouldn’t see them for a while and now, we see those kids and they’re back as adults teaching our Sunday school groups. And they’re teachers in our school. They had a good experience of the parish and of church, and we gave that to them, we were part of a bigger picture that gave that to them.”
Outreach and care don’t solely extend to the youth of the parish, but also the more aged, some of whom are supported in St Fiacc’s House, a low dependency supported care home that provides a residence for 18 people and day care facilities for up to 20 people.
Also in the vicinity is an activity centre, a library, a hairdresser’s and a chiropodist. Close-by is the Poor Clare’s community who have been living on the church grounds for over a century. They continue to offer a listening ear by making themselves available to talk face to face, or by responding to a request in writing.
Nearby is the parish swimming pool, situated in the historic building which was formally the old National school. A major local fundraising drive, under the leadership of Fr John Fingleton and Fr Jim O’Connell, enabled the pool to be opened on the June 1, 1994. The extensive facilities within the pool complex are open to all members of the public, and over 60 schools in the surrounding area and afar avail of it throughout the year.
These amenities provide a wealth of support to the parish community, and create a healthy environment where religion and everyday-life are intimately blended into one. In this way, those in the community can come to learn that their faith shouldn’t be cordoned off once they leave the church, but realise that a holistic Christian lifestyle entails living out the Gospel message by serving others, without judgement.
“It goes back to our vision statement where a parish is not just a church but it’s reaching out to people as well,” parish priest Fr John Dunphy says, noting the real need in parishes for both sacramental and liturgical elements as well as outreach initiatives.
“More than ever with the way the Church is portrayed, we need to focus more and more on the parish as a community and it’s there for the community, whether it’s through prayer, or through helping and to focus on the ideals of the early Christian communities,” Fr John explains.
Without these donations it would be a harder struggle for us. So I always say every penny makes a difference
“I think it’s necessary for us as a parish to go back to that vision and let the outside world see that this is actually what the vision of a Christian community is. It’s maybe not the negativity that is constantly portrayed, and we never sort of get a break. There’s so much negativity being portrayed, which a lot of is justified – we’re not denying that – but there’s other good things happening in parishes all over Ireland.”
This notion is no better realised than in St Clare’s hospitality kitchen which opened four years ago and has since been providing nourishment and company to those who need it most in the community. It now operates five days a week and all meals are provided free of charge, with no questions asked.
“It originally started in Lourdes when we were there on pilgrimage. I’m a volunteer and I met up with Fr John and a few other people and we were talking about the need of children who were going to school hungry and we just felt that we had to do something. So we decided then when we came back to Graiguecullen, perhaps we should have an evening of prayer and adoration and maybe see where we go from there,” parish volunteer Isobel Brooker says.
After Sacramental Co-ordinator and parish team member Suzanne McWey wrote numerous letters to unused building owners asking for help to achieve their goal, the parish team were blessed with the premises they have today which is only a short stroll from the church, directly across from Carlow Castle.
Although when obtained the building was a derelict shell, teeming donations totting up to almost €160,000 and the unwavering support of volunteers allowed the food kitchen to become a reality.
“Without these donations it would be a harder struggle for us. So I always say every penny makes a difference, it really does make a difference because that penny will go into a euro. It does make a difference. I never say no because it’s so important to keep that kitchen going,” Isobel explains, adding that it’s changed the lives of people throughout the community.
The kitchen is run predominantly by kindness of volunteers, and is a warm source of comfort for those struggling with the myriad difficulties that life can throw. Alongside the kitchen, food parcels are arranged every Wednesday and distributed by parish volunteers on Thursdays to families and individuals experiencing financial hitches.
With its keen determination to offer a helping hand where needed, the story of this particular parish is an acute reminder of how powerful community can be in creating a vision of society that leaves no one behind.
“We have got strong belief that things will work out and nothing is impossible. Nothing at all is impossible if you’ve got the right frame of mind and got the support,” Isobel says.