By Bob DeWitt
One of the smaller parishes in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, St. James the Apostle in rural Lawrence County once was abandoned and now is without a resident pastor. Yet its 325 families demonstrate much of what it means to be The Church Alive!
Visitors are warmly welcomed at Mass. New members are invited to join any number of ministries—outreach to the poor, to abused women, to shut-ins, or perhaps teaching the faith to children and adults.
Parishioners recently repainted the playground equipment at a Catholic school 10 miles away in New Castle. They take people to doctor’s appointments, and collect medicine for missionaries in Haiti.
“They understand our faith is bigger than just the church building,” said Deacon John Carran, deacon administrator of the parish. “Parishioners go into the community and look for ways to serve.”
This ministry thrives despite the fact that, since Father James Downs retired more than a year ago, St. James the Apostle Parish no longer has a resident pastor. Priests from neighboring parishes take turns celebrating Mass at St. James and Christ the King parishes. Deacon Carran runs the daily operations, with a lot of help.
“We now have four different priests giving us a variety of viewpoints in their homilies,” said Jean Pascale, office manager of St. James and tireless lay leader. “We’re forming intentional disciples even more quickly. We recognize we can do more.”
Father Philip Farrell, regional vicar and priest director of St. James, said parishioners have handled the transition well.
“They are empowered by their baptismal call,” Father Farrell said. “The size of the parish is a challenge, but folks have a bigger vision of Church.”
The original St. James the Apostle Parish was founded in 1847. As New Castle and Youngstown, OH, grew, settlers began drifting away from the New Bedford area. St. James Church was abandoned in 1873, and local Catholics attended Mass in the orphanage chapel at nearby Villa Maria.
The parish was revived in 1949.
Pauline Beck, who’s been a parishioner for about 40 years, remembers when there were more children, but notes that St. James is much more active now in ministry and outreach.
“We put a greater emphasis on community today,” Beck said. “It’s not about just going to Mass and supporting the parish financially, but trying to bring people in and looking after your neighbor.”
“It’s like the TV show ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name,” said Roxanne Romeo, who helps lead small faith sharing groups at the parish. “The people here are so warm and kind. I see Jesus reflected in the faces and lives of each other.”
Molly Stephens, a mother of two young children, serves with her husband John on the On Mission parish team. A convert to the Catholic faith, she experiences the love of God in and through her parish.
“The Mass is my favorite part. It feels alive,” Stephens said. “We’ve been blessed. Our seven year old daughter looks forward to going every Sunday. She says, ‘I love church!’”
For parishes interested in improving their outreach, Romeo said it’s important to encourage parishioners to get involved. Leaders must help them discern their talents and give them confidence that Jesus will guide them as they journey On Mission for The Church Alive.
With Bishop Zubik calling Catholics to deepen their relationship with Jesus, Beck recalls the wisdom of one of her favorite singer-songwriters of the 1960s, Melanie.
“As I see it now, we have all got to change. Keeping us whole is the main thing,” Melanie sang.
“Every parish, every diocese is part of the universality of the Church,” Beck said. “We’re part of something so much bigger than ourselves or our parish. Jesus taught us that we’re all one.”