The message: Please feel free to visit our parish

The message: Please feel free to visit our parish

capella-webPhoto by James A. McBride







Father Joseph Capella, pastor, stands next to a billboard for his parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, at the Lindenwold PATCO station. Last month the parish began advertising on the paper placemats in the Starview Diner in Somerdale, where Father Capella often goes for breakfast.

This isn’t a typical train station billboard plugging a beverage or a restaurant.

This one promotes food for the soul.

The billboard at the Lindenwold PATCO station carries the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and invites commuters: “We welcome you to become a member of our vibrant and dynamic Catholic Christian faith. Please feel free to visit our parish.” The schedule for Masses, confessions and novena follow, along with the helpful direction that the church is “approx. 1/2 mile from Lindenwold Speed Line”

Father Joseph Capella, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, can’t say for certain that the billboard has brought new members to the church, but he’s heard a lot of comments from parishioners who have seen it and how it led to discussions about the church with other commuters.

“It may have other consequences even beyond bringing people in,” he says. “It gets the Catholic Church’s invitation out there to where people are in everyday life.”

The nontraditional billboard approach is just one of many outreach efforts, new ministries and new or renewed activities by the year-and-a-half-old Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. The parish last month began advertising on the paper placemats in the Starview Diner in Somerdale, where Father Capella often goes for breakfast.

“We don’t have the money to invest in big-time programs and things like that.”

The steps might be small, but they are frequent.

“We’re trying to do a lot of evangelization and outreach into the community,” Father Capella said.

By nearly any measure, these efforts are bringing a new vitality to what formerly were the parishes of St. Lawrence in Lindenwold, St. Luke in Stratford and Our Lady of Grace in Somerdale.

Sunday attendance is up more than 3 percent. The collection at weekend Masses is up about 10 percent. That additional funding has made it possible to expand programs for the congregation.

— For example, Father Capella recently hired a director for the new Hispanic ministries.

— The parish now also has a youth group.

— Last month the parish formally began a bereavement and consolation ministry.

— This month a new ministry begins offering Sunday classes for Hispanics in English as a second language.

— Other outreach efforts in progress include redesigning the website and getting the parish up on Facebook and Twitter.

— A campaign using mailings and in-pew surveys identified other needs, and they are now being met, including having homes blessed and offering more sacramental home visits for the elderly.

— For the 52 families doing home schooling for children in religious education, there are periodic programs like “Pasta with the Pastor” to bring the families together.

“I’m constantly saying to our staff for example and a lot of our volunteers that we really have to be evangelical,” Father Capella said. “We certainly have to be very faithful to the Gospel, and we are, but more than anything the flavor we take must be evangelical. And what we mean by that is just constantly, constantly putting ourselves at the service of one another and others whom we don’t know and be really welcoming not only to our parishioners but essentially anyone who shows up at the door.”

Reaching out to the growing Hispanic population in the Lindenwold area has been a particular priority for Father Capella. He understands both the language and the culture from the half-dozen years he spent ministering in Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

He goes regularly into some of the 22 apartment complexes in Lindenwold where many of the Spanish-speaking residents live.

“We’re really putting an effort to go into these places. Some of these places are kind of rough. They can be violent and whatnot,” Father Capella said.

“We’re actually going out into those complexes so that the Catholic Church has a presence where the people are. In fact we are looking into actually renting one of the condominiums in one of the – for lack of a better term – a very notorious complex so can sort of have a branch office like a branch rectory” to reach the Spanish people “so we can be where they are.”

Many of the Hispanic residents are young, and their families are still in the Central American countries they left. So Father Capella tries to create a sense of family for them in the parish. Since many of those young people work six days a week, the parish makes a special effort to accommodate them on Sundays. There is a Spanish-language Mass at 1 p.m. each Sunday, and they have a lunch for participants. The English language classes will also be offered on Sunday afternoons, and the parish office has Sunday hours also.

The outreach is not just for newer community members, however.

Parishioner Jackie Davenport, for example, has been a member of the church choir for many years. But since the parish merger, she said, the choir has gone from about 12 to 15 members to about 35.

“It’s probably one of the ministries that have blended the best,” she said. They have learned new music and social gatherings like a picnic last month and a Christmas party help to pull members together.

Attendance at Mass has definitely picked up since the merger, Davenport said. Those familiar with the merger process give high marks to the energy and enthusiasm of Father Capella.

“He is definitely a blessing to the parish, and I think a lot of people feel that way,” said Jackie Davenport. They appreciate his leadership.

Paul Bakey, chair of the Blessed John Paul II school board, agrees. “Father Joe has just been a great leader in terms of bringing the three parishes together,” he said.

Since the parish merger, said parishioner Bill Hughes, “There is more energy in the parish.” He says firmly, “Father Joe Capella was the catalyst for this.”

Today, Hughes said, “There’s a lot of sharing going on. Before there seemed to be more concrete barriers between the parishes.”

Hughes, a professional musician and a convert to Catholicism several years ago, said, “The parish before the merger felt very closed.” Now, he said, people see themselves not only as members of the parish but also as “members of the diocese and are connected I think more with the Catholic world in general.”

The next step in that expansion of the local Catholic world is already in the works. Bishop Joseph Galante has approved a proposal to designate the parish as the official diocesean shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Work on the outdoor shrine is under way, and the dedication is scheduled for Oct. 30.

Father Capella talks with enthusiasm about the new shrine, which will include an outdoor rosary, a foundation and a meditation altar. In particular he hopes that some of the Hispanic members of the congregation will look back in later generations as those of the Irish and Italians in the older parishes do today, and tell their children and grandchildren how they helped to make the shrine possible.

And who knows, it might be another item to add to that billboard in attracting new members of the parish from that train station a half-mile away.

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