Social activities used to pull together parishioners

Social activities used to pull together parishioners

Photos by Alan M. Dumoff

Many parishes sponsor social events to bring people together. Among the recent activities at St. Padre Pio Parish in Vineland were performances of “Nunsense: The Mega-Musical” (top photo) in October and November 2010;  and a family picnic in August 2010.

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Amateurs performing the musical comedy “Nunsense” in a school auditorium.

Professionals in the church hall re-creating the “Rat Pack” era with the songs of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

Legendary disk jockey Jerry Blavat entertaining at a dinner dance.

What do all those entertainment options have in common? They are all items on the recent calendar for the social activities at St. Padre Pio Parish in Vineland.

“Part of the whole idea,” said Father Peter Saporito, “is that Vatican II said the parish is supposed to be the center of family life. It’s education. It’s spirituality. And it’s social – to make people comfortable coming.”

Since arriving as pastor at what was then Our Lady of Pompeii Parish a decade ago, Father Saporito has stressed the idea of bringing people together for more than the traditional church services. “The parish doesn’t just mean you go there to pray and you’re somber. There has to be some joy in the parish life.”

At his first Mass at Our Lady of Pompeii, he set the tone. Until that point a sedate, low-key wine-and-cheese fundraiser raffle was about the only social event for parishioners. “Do I look like a wine and cheese and cello guy?” the new pastor joked to the congregation. “We’re going to have a beef-and-beer. We’re going to have fun.”

The merger about three years later of Our Lady of Pompeii, St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s into St. Padre Pio Parish reinforced the need for such approaches.

“The socialization is a way to meet people,” said parishioner Terry VanLeer, who attends many of the events with her husband, George, who is a deacon at the newly merged parish of St. Mary of Mount Carmel in Hammonton. “Outside the liturgical aspects of it, you get to have some fun with people and develop friendships. It’s important. It’s a very important part of the parish life to have the social activities, and to have different things that appeal to different age groups.”

There’s agreement on the diocesan level, particularly in light of the consolidation of so many parishes.

“We look for these activities that bring people together through social events,” said Larry Farmer, the director of mergers for the Diocese of Camden. “It’s important in building a new parish through a merger.”

One of the more unusual programs that pulled together parishioners marked the merger of St. Peter Celestine and Queen of Heaven into the Catholic Community of Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill.

Members of both congregations were asked to donate six-inch cloth squares for a quilt. The squares were to be fabric that represented something from the parish or something from their lives.

The original thought, explained parishioner Carol Matlack, who spearheaded the project, was that they might get enough squares to make an altar cloth. The response was overwhelming, with several hundred families participating. The final quilt had some 800 squares and measured six feet by 36 feet. It was used as a canopy over the altar for the official parish merger ceremony in 2009.

“There were squares that people donated from T-shirts that said Queen of Heaven or St. Peter Celestine School on it,” said Matlack. “There were military uniforms. There were pieces of wedding dresses from people who got married in one of the parishes.”

Once the pieces were assembled, the participants were invited to come up after Mass to help with the final tying of the quilt.

Beyond the huge participation, said Sister Peggy Devlin, a pastoral associate at Christ Our Light, “It was a wonderful image of coming together.”

In a similar vein, Christ Our Light sponsored a day of service last October. Sister Peggy said that at least 300 volunteers turned out to work on a broad range of tasks, from visiting nursing homes to helping at the church thrift shop to working in the Cathedral Kitchen. At the end of the day the volunteers gathered for a potluck supper.

The parish has also sponsored two 5K runs in honor of Capt. Gregory Dalessio, a member of the parish who was killed in Iraq.

Our Lady of Peace Parish in Williamstown is another merged parish (St. Mary’s in Williamstown and St. John Neumann in Sicklerville) with a history of social activities. A new addition to their lengthy list was a Country and Western Sea Food Dance.

“It was packed,” said Jim Hallman, the parish’s coordinator of evangelization, “and I guess because of the success we’re going to continue it next year.”

Other social activities in the parish have included a casino night, a Cub Scout snowball dance and an annual parish carnival.

The new St. Clare of Assisi Parish came up with a new social twist last June on a traditional event – a communion breakfast at the Swedesboro Diner after the Saturday morning Masses at St. Michael’s in Gibbstown, St. John the Evangelist in Paulsboro and St. Joseph’s in Swedesboro.

“The people who put it together said there was only one stipulation,” said the pastor, Father David Grover. “The parish will pay the bill if you tell the cashier you’re from St. Clare’s.” It was a way, he said, “to help them get their mouth around the name of the new parish.”

In organizing that event, Michael Pszwaro, a trustee of the merged parish, handed out fliers and then color-coded tickets to people who attended the weekday Masses at the three churches. The colored tickets indicated the tables where people would sit to ensure that there was some mingling of the groups.

About 45 people attended, Pszwaro said. “As a result of that I’ve seen people that actually are friendly with people they did not know before,” he added, “which I think is huge.”

St. Clare’s also held a picnic for the combined parish in September, as well as an ice cream social in the St. John’s gym for the children who made their First Communion from all three churches.

Sometimes social activities raise a bit of money for the parish. The annual Padre Pio Festival at St. Padre Pio Parish in Vineland on a Sunday each fall brings in big crowds from throughout the region – by the busload, in some cases – and all the money goes to support the parish’s St. Mary’s Regional School.

Other events at St. Padre Pio are simply to build camaraderie, including the annual parish picnic and the free dinner dance as a thank you to all of the parishioners who volunteer for anything.

“The main thing is that you need a key person who generates interest,” said Leo Duquette, a member of the congregation at St. Padre Pio. “With Father Pete, anyone who comes up to him with some kind of plan, he goes along with it and promotes it.”

Not all the ideas they have tried at St. Padre Pio have been successful. That doesn’t bother the pastor.

“It’s part of what the bishop calls a vibrant parish,” said Father Saporito. “That’s one of his reasons for merging, to make parishes more active. Hopefully, it works.”

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