My First Parish Venture
I loved being a priest. I laughed with God’s people and cried with them, watched their children grow up, get married, and have kids of their own. I was an honored guest at births and Baptism, graduations and marriages. I sat and talked with the sick and dying. I held hands with many families as they buried loved ones. I entered their lives and they mine.
I felt I was part of a giant, warm family. As a priest, my relationships were closer than those I enjoyed with anyone in my family of origin. This real emotional intimacy slowly changed me, making me more confident in myself and my abilities as I could see that my life and work had an impact on others.
My love of the Church and my need to connect linked up happily when I was called to form a parish youth group at St. Helen’s. This opportunity gave me a chance to have the childhood I hadn’t ever really known.
“I want to get our parish’s kids together,” I told Father Sullivan. “I want to do something to help them connect with one another. They’re more isolated out here than those kids who are closer to the city. They go to different schools all over the county and rarely have the opportunity to socialize with other youth in their own community.”
Father Sullivan said it wouldn’t work. “We’ve tried it before,” he warned. “And we just couldn’t get the kids to come. You’re welcome to try again, Lou, and I’ll support you, but you should know going in that I don’t think it will happen.”
But Father Sullivan’s club hadn’t had a Barbara Cooney, a stunning eleventh grader with raven hair and brown eyes. About 5’3”, she had a lovely figure and a calm, soft-spoken manner. Barbara was popular with girls, but having a crush on her was par for the course with the boys.
I approached Barbara one day after church. “I want to form a youth club,” I said, “and I’d love for you to be the first to sign up. I need you to help me. You’ll have a leadership role, you’ll bring in your girlfriends, and, well, you’re also meant to attract some boys to the club.”
I smiled as she blushed, but she was obviously not averse to the idea. She accepted her role, and my plan turned out to be a great success. Boys and girls between 14 and 18 years old joined rapidly, and we began with about 20 kids.
We decided to meet early Sunday evenings almost every week. I kept the whole process very democratic, letting the members form the kind of club they wanted to have. We always started the meeting with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and had a prayer at the end, but I didn’t feel it was necessary to have any formal religious instruction. Almost all of these kids attended Catholic high school, and, as one of them, Don Davies, said, “It gets crammed down our throats from dawn to dusk. How much religion can a person take?” Once in a while I might give a talk to the kids about something that seemed relevant to their lives, but usually, they ran the show.
Few churches had groups like ours, especially with the dancing, plays, and parties, so when the kids from the four neighboring parishes heard about the fun we had, they began to trickle in. They really liked meeting boys and girls from other schools, and many would bring their friends to join in the fun. Soon we had more than 60 kids in the group and only about half of them were from St. Helen’s parish.
The associate pastor from a neighboring church let as many people as he could know that he was upset. All of the kids in his youth group – which was really more of an evening Sunday school class – were coming to our group.
One night, I stood back and watched the happy, semi-organized chaos at a meeting in the church basement. Mary Agnes and Tom turned the crank and gathered the pages from the mimeograph machine that was making copies of our monthly newsletter, “The Cross and Crown.” As always, there was much screaming and laughter as the messy machine got ink all over the kids’ hands, and then their clothes, and then the faces of whoever passed within daubing range.
Lucille stopped to review a copy, turning immediately to the most popular section, the gossip column, which featured “juicy,” teasing tidbits like, “Who was Donnie making eyes at during last month’s cabin party? Could it have been E.G.????” Lucille screamed at something she read and ran over to a group of her friends.
The girls appeared to be doing nothing more than whispering with one another, occasionally looking over at me, covering their mouths with their hands, and bursting into peals of embarrassed laughter. More often than not, when I’d happen upon clusters of giggling girls, I’d approach and say in a mock stern voice, “If you ladies would like, I will hear your confession now.” That generally sent them scattering, as they didn’t want to risk my overhearing any of the silly “sins” they could never bring themselves to confess. But this time, I shook my head at them in mock weariness and looked away.
Billy set up the record player and organized the 45s and 78s for the dancing later. The kids were excellent square dancers, and I loved to watch them laughing and moving from one partner to another. Dancing energized them and at the same time depleted their energy – a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Several boys and girls were working diligently at the front of the room on sets and props for an upcoming “vaudeville” type show we had planned for the parish. Bob was painting a giant picture frame. One of the skits featured kids imitating famous paintings and standing stock-still in the picture frame. Fritz and Maureen planned to portray the dour farming couple in “American Gothic,” though no one truly believed they would be able to do it without cracking up.
Another group sat in a circle, planning an upcoming cabin party, which we held a couple of times a year in one of the county parks. These were always a big hit, with sports and games and delicious food sent along by the parents and then singing and talking far into the night.
I left them to their own devices for awhile, stepping outside the church hall and into the cool evening air. I lit a cigarette and took a deep drag, realizing for the hundredth time how happy I felt to be a part of all of this youthful revelry. These great kids had taken me in as one of their own. Though I could tell I had their respect, they treated me more like a big brother, even a friend, than as a member of the clergy.
I kicked at some stones on the sidewalk, feeling like a kid again, or maybe for the first time. Without knowing I was going to do it, I had given myself, through these kids, what I had lacked in my own high school years, spent in the far less lively confines of seminary.