By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
WORCESTER – It was a cold winter’s night. Carolers sang. Christmas lights were flicked on.
Santa Claus arrived – on a firetruck! Children (and parents with cell phone cameras) lined up for their turn with him.
There he sat – outside. In the neighborhood. With the people. Behind him, light and warmth flowed from open doors. The front doors of a church. The neighborhood parish, so dubbed by the man in a red and green elf hat – and a black cassock.
“I work for who Santa works for – God,” the man told a child.
He was none other than Father Jonathan J. Slavinskas, administrator of Our Lady of Providence Parish at St. Bernard’s Church and diocesan vocations recruiter. He’d invited people in the neighborhood to a Christmas tree lighting and visit from Santa last Sunday.
“It came to me at Mass – we need to light up Lincoln Street,” he told The Catholic Free Press. The crowds of parishioners and neighbors had just left, having chatted in the lighted church and practically depleting the abundant supply of cookies and hot chocolate in the vestibule.
“The same Mass I decided we’ll do a midnight Mass at Christmas,” Father Slavinskas continued. “Why not have it? I’m young enough … to stay up. (He’s 32.) And I figure those people who were leaving their jobs might be able to pop in before they went home.”
It’s all part of his outreach in a neighborhood where he finds some people marching to the beat of a different drummer. (And not the sweet Little Drummer Boy who used his talent for the Christ Child!)
“What really made it all was seeing the smiles come upon the faces, and bringing a diverse community together,” Father Slavinskas said of the tree lighting event.
“This is your neighborhood parish,” he’d told the people gathered. “And it’s here for you all to feel peace. If there’s anything you ever need, this is where the office is (the rectory next to the church). This is where I live.”
Neighbor Danielle Brewster, there with her stepdaughters, said the event was lovely, the first thing like it they’ve seen in the neighborhood.
“You guys have a good presence,” Ezekiel Dicent, of Nuevo Amanecer, a Seventh-Day Adventist Church up the road, told Father Slavinskas. Isaac Dicent told The Catholic Free Press they’d been walking by. Their aunt Mayra Dicent said they liked the music. So they stopped in.
“My hope is they came in because of the curiosity and my prayer is they know they’re part of our family now,” Father Slavinskas said.
Other attendees were people in recovery from group homes or other residences, Father Slavinskas said. He’d invited them; he makes himself known at their meetings at the church.
“Yes, kids smile when they see Santa and get cookies,” he said. “But to see the smile on someone who’s truly in need, that interior peace they need…. At that moment their problem goes away and they see they’re loved.… And that’s what it’s all about: Light up Lincoln Street. The Light of Christ wins.”
It wasn’t the first time Father Slavinskas sought to bring Christ’s light into the surrounding darkness. After he arrived in July, Henry and Pamela Camosse donated a carillon to the church, he said. They’re members of St. Joseph’s in Charlton, his former parish. Before it started playing hymns and ringing on the hour, he heard gunshots outside.
“Of course you run out, because your family’s out there,” the priest said of his neighborhood “parishioners.”
It actually was a parishioner, though not a very active one, who’d been shot, he said. He visited the 16-year-old in the hospital, where they had “a good come-to-Jesus moment.” He said he told the youth and his fellow gang members that they might want to retaliate for the shooting, but the last thing he would tolerate was war on the church steps!
It’s been quiet, he said. And the youth, who has family members at the parish, comes to church more often now.
“The gunshots had control of the streets last night,” Father Slavinskas said he told the congregation the next day. “The bells start ringing today to let people know the darkness loses. This is the sound people need to hear.”
Some neighbors have perhaps known only one way of living – according to the law of the streets. Father Slavinskas said the goal is to show them they’re called to live by “the law of Christ, which is love.”
That may be taking root in the next generation. Father Slavinskas said he opens the church doors on school days so children can wait for the bus inside. Fridays he gives them donuts.
One day he found a child kneeling in the pews and now gets reports from him.
“I prayed to that lady because I thought she was important – because she was wearing a crown,” the boy told him, indicating a statue of the Blessed Mother.
The priest said he walks the streets in his cassock (he figures it’s recognizable religious garb). “The younger crowd” calls, “Father, can you throw us out a blessing?”
Some blessings come in a different form, as a surprise. Father Slavinskas said that as Thanksgiving approached he had extra donated turkeys, and offered one to a passerby.
“We were just talking about what we were going to eat for Thanksgiving.”
The response at the barber shop, where he offered more turkeys?
“What’s the catch?”
“The catch is Jesus loves you,” replied the priest. “Just watch out for his church!”
Now barber shop employees use the church gym for pickup basketball.
“I love it!” concludes Father Slavinskas. “This is Church!”
St. Mary Parish sees the fruits of encountering Jesus in ‘Light of the World’
By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
They see a difference in themselves, others, their parish.
Friends and family members seem to see a difference too.
And God gets the credit.
“I think all pastors are looking for the fix for their parish,” Father Nicholas Desimone, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Uxbridge, told The Catholic Free Press.
The only way to get it is through “an encounter with Jesus Christ,” he said. “At St. Mary’s, that encounter has been through Light of the World.”
The parish has held several Light of the World Evangelization Ministries’ retreats, which 120 people, mostly parishioners, have attended, he said. As a result, 10 small, faith groups are now meeting, usually twice a month, in people’s homes.
Father Desimone is one of those who sees the fruits.
“I have volunteers coming out of the woodwork,” he said. “I have new ministries springing up.” People are more eager to learn about and share their faith. Most of those who attend the retreats do so because of a personal invitation from someone who previously attended one.
Father Desimone recalled one parishioner who was not active in church who really needed the retreat to “work” for her. She was in a difficult situation and had tried everything. Jesus was sort of her last option.
The retreat gave her a reason to go on.
She isn’t the only one who’s benefited.
“It’s been a game-changer even in terms of my own priestly ministry,” Father Desimone said of the program.
He said that each time he attends as much of the retreat as he can, and each time is brought closer to Christ himself. And seeing parishioners come closer to Christ “gives me an energy that I might not otherwise have,” he said.
It was parishioners – not a priest – who got him into this. One of his closest friends from seminary, Father Jonathan Bakkelund, a priest in the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., had tried.
“For years he had been telling me about Light of the World and that I should do it,” said Father Desimone, who assumed it was just one of many programs available.
But when he went to visit Father Bakkelund, he met two ordinary couples from his friend’s parish who spoke passionately about their love for Jesus.
“I wanted to know where that came from,” Father Desimone said. “For them it came from Light of the World.”
So he brought the program to St. Mary’s. He expresses gratitude that his parishioners trusted him enough to try it.
Timothy and Denise Rogan said they made the first Light of the World retreat at St. Mary’s, and have helped with all the subsequent ones.
Asked if anyone came to Christ as a result of Light of the World, Denise Rogan said, “My husband is the perfect example.” She said she invited him to the first retreat, which she was going to attend, and he said “no.” But the night before it started he asked if he could come.
Both said they didn’t know what came over him.
“I think the Holy Spirit came and conked him on the head,” Mrs. Rogan decided. “He has really, truly, turned his whole life over to Christ.”
“I’m a totally different person after Light of the World,” Timothy Rogan said. “I went to church before, but I was never really engaged. Now I’m fully engaged. I just want to help people and do all I can.”
He said he’s been a facilitator for small groups – something he never thought he’d do. He and his wife said they’ve helped with all the subsequent retreats and with service projects.
“Even some of our friends outside of the Church are noticing that we’re different … more joyful, more helpful to people,” Mrs. Rogan said. “It just kind of comes natural. We’ve really learned to turn our problems over to the Lord. I did do it, but not the way I’m doing it now. I think people have noticed we’re not as anxious as we used to be.”
Their adult children seem to notice a difference too, she said, adding, “Some of the conversations they’ll start with us … We’re more free to talk about our faith.”
They’re growing into a parish family too. Mrs. Rogan said she and her husband used to leave after Mass. But now they almost have to be kicked out – they’re so busy talking with their new friends from Light of the World.
Emile and Sheryl Ethier also said they attended the first Light of the World retreat at St. Mary’s and have helped with the subsequent ones.
Mr. Ethier said the most important thing he’s received from the retreat is “a deeper understanding of my Catholic religion and a deeper relationship with Christ.” He added, “I think that it does that for anybody who attends. … People come closer to each other through Christ.”
“You can feel the work of the Holy Spirit,” said his wife. “The Holy Spirit touches every single person. … I feel like it’s really changed my life.”
Has it helped them to bring others to Christ?
“Absolutely,” said Mr. Ethier. He watches each person come closer to the Creator when they attend the retreat.
Mrs. Ethier talked about sharing their stories and being loving and non-judgmental, promoting the retreat at Masses at their parish and helping St. Roch Parish in Oxford hold one of the retreats.