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December 16, 2012 - January 5, 2013

Parishes report success from transformation program

Our Lady of the Snows Parish, 4810 S. Leamington Ave, completed the parish transformation program earlier this year. An outcome of that program was an initiative to increase youth Mass attendance by distributing bracelets to youth at Mass each week. There will be a prize for the youth with the most bracelets. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Deacon Franco Foti, pastoral minister at Our Lady of the Snows Parish, 4810 S. Leamington Ave., talks with Ricardo Vega following Mass in Spanish on June 17. The parish completed the archdiocese's parish transformation program this year. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

By Michelle Martin

STAFF WRITER

What does it take to transform a parish? At Our Lady of the Snows, 4810 S. Leamington Ave., part of the answer is inexpensive colored silicone bracelets, distributed to children at Mass each week. After 10 weeks, there will be a prize for the children with the most bracelets.

At St. Ambrose, 1012 E. 41st St., it’s coming up with a way for parishioners to volunteer an hour or so at a time, and offering them more opportunities to build a more mature understanding of the Catholic faith and its traditions.

Both are outcomes of the archdiocese’s Parish Transformation program, which has been in place for a little over a year. About 60 parishes have taken part in a 12-week program that focuses on helping see where they are now, what their mission is, and what they need to do to accomplish that.

“Parish Transformation is an initiative that helps to make good parishes better,” Father Ron Lewinski, a member of the parish transformation team, explained in an interview as the program was getting started last year. “It has a double focus, on the mission and vision of the parish and on the financial side as well.”

Father Stan Rataj, pastor at Our Lady of the Snows, said one of the goals his parish came up with was to find a way to increase youth attendance at Sunday Mass. The bracelet idea was one way to encourage young people to come, and “with the kids come the parents,” he said.

Early results were very encouraging; the parish hoped to get 150 children and teens at Mass each weekend; the first weekend they had the bracelets, they passed out 350.

Rataj said the parish also is moving forward with a number of other goals, including identifying a place to set up a eucharistic adoration chapel, which could be a unifying point for the parish’s English-, Polish- and Spanish-speaking parishioners.

As a further point of unity, the parish held a devotions: the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Czestochowa, he said.

Overall, he said, parish transformation has been a positive experience for Our Lady of the Snows, but it’s not over even though the 12 weekly meetings ended months ago.

“The real meat and potatoes comes in following through on the things that were proposed,” he said. “We’re in the process of carrying out the things we had planned.”

Holy Ghost Father Freddy Washington, pastor of St. Ambrose, said parish transformation was even better than he expected.

“It was a real eye-opener. It gave me new skills and new hope as a pastor,” he said. “It was so phenomenal I can’t find words. It gave voice to things we haven’t thought of, of how parishioners and pastor are going through a process of transformation, I would even say conversion. Where do we want to focus our hopes at this time?”

Part of its success came from the process in which a facilitator, either employed by the archdiocese or by the consulting firm O’Meara Ferguson, works with the pastor and steering committee and takes charge of the larger group meetings.

“You’ve got people involved in parish transformation who are probably not involved in any other programs,” Washington said. “I was actually part of the meeting instead of running the meeting. That made it easier for people to speak, and easier for me to hear.”

That’s by design, said facilitator Jon Matousek, one of the cadre who works directly for the archdiocese. So is the emphasis on getting a wide variety of parishioners involved in parish transformation.

“You need to have a committed pastor and you need a diverse group in terms of representing all the ethnic communities, different age groups, different ministry groups” he said. “You want to look for a group that mirrors the parish demographically.”

The facilitator starts by meeting with the pastor so he or she can learn about any situations that need to be dealt with in terms of changing populations or friction between parish groups. Then the facilitator meets with the steering committee before the launch, and meets with the pastor and steering committee before each weekly meeting with the larger group.

The initial task is to help the parish focus on the mission of the church.

“You’re really peeling the onion back, so to speak, getting the team to look at what’s the call?” Matousek said. “How can they express the love of God?”

Once they have settled on that, the team selects a handful of concrete goals and sets up action steps to achieve them. They also look at what resources they need — spiritual, human and financial — to reach those goals.

As St. Ambrose and Our Lady of the Snows demonstrate, different parishes will have different goals and different ways of achieving them.

“This is not a cookie-cutter 12-step program,” Matousek said.

One advantage is that facilitators can connect parishes to resources they might not have been aware of, such as initiatives from the Office of Catholic Schools to help schools increase their enrollment. At the midpoint of the program, all the parishes go to a “best practices workshop” to find out what other parishes are doing.

St. Ambrose set its sights on evangelization and catechesis, Washington said.

The measure of success is people’s willingness and enthusiasm to share their knowledge of who we are and what we profess,” he said. “That’s why catechesis is so important; when we learned about the faith, we were in elementary school.”

As a practical step, the parish surveyed its parishioners and found they come from 15 different ZIP codes and many drive by three or four other parishes to get there. Washington wants to make sure the parish satisfies the spiritual needs of those who have chosen it, and parish transformation will help. “I think the parishioners who were gathered really saw what the mission of God’s church is, and how we can be a place of healing and a place of hope for people who think of this parish as their home,” he said.