Parishioners at the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul who attend monthly “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” events often find themselves sitting around a dinner table with people they may have seen many times before, but have never met.
Perhaps they attend the same Mass each week, even sit on the same side of the church, but have never had the opportunity to say more than a casual “hello.”
Every second Saturday of the month, a group of six to 12 parishioners who have registered for the dinner program gather at one of five host homes to simply enjoy a meal and good conversation.
With close to 100 parishioners now participating in the program, launched in May 2010 by Patty Flynn and her husband, Bill, each month offers an opportunity to meet a different set of familiar faces and, even more important, the chance to build community.
At a recent dinner gathering at the Flynns’ home in Mendota Heights, the group of four couples included Jim and Patty Rosno, members of the parish for seven years; Chris and Jo Burr, members for eight years, and Patrick and Ellen Poquette, who just joined St. Joseph in August. The Flynns have been parishioners for 16 years.
“When we found out about ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’ at the parish stewardship fair in December, we were very intrigued by the idea,” said Ellen, who added that she and Patrick attended their first dinner last month. “We saw it as a way to meet people. We like to know who we are in church with every week.”
Passing along a good idea
Patty Flynn credits her son, Billy, now living in Milwaukee, with introducing the dinner idea to his parents. While visiting a college friend in the Kansas City area, Billy attended a dinner and was anxious to tell Patty about the experience.
“The next day, he called me and said, ‘This is the greatest thing — you have to start it at St. Joe’s,’” she said. “I thought it sounded like a really good idea, so I contacted the woman at St. Therese in Parkville, Mo., who has been organizing their dinner program for the last six years — they’ve actually had it in their parish for 26 years.”
Flynn voluntarily coordinates the gatherings each month and puts together a list of guests for each host site. Participants can offer to host, but that’s not a requirement.
Parishioners can join the program at any time but are not obligated to attend a dinner every month.
With the variety of schedules people have, Flynn said for now that five host homes are enough to handle the monthly demand, although she said that could change as the program grows.
An e-mail reminder is sent a few days before the dinner with the address of the hosts’ home, and because the meals are all potluck, a request is made for each individual or couple to bring either an appetizer, salad or dessert. (The hosts provide the beverages and the main course.)
There is also an entertaining element of mystery to the evening. Only the hosts’ address is provided and not their names; the names of the guests are neither shared with the hosts nor with the other guests.
“We purposefully do not cheat and look up host names in the parish directory,” said Chris Burr with a laugh, but added that when they were sent to the Rosno home for another dinner gathering, they recognized the address of their longtime friends right away.
The dinner events are for adults over the age of 21 and include both singles and married couples. Flynn said she knows of two older women who met for the first time at a dinner and have struck up a friendship; Jo and Chris Burr met a neighbor who lives at the end of their block at one of the gatherings.
Gift of building community
Father Michael Creagan, pastor at St. Joseph and recent first-time dinner host, is an enthusiastic supporter of the new parish program.
“In many ways, the local parish is like a family, and these events are certainly bringing our family closer together,” he said. “I am always impressed when I participate in the dinners and find people who are married, single, older and young. The Flynns have given a marvelous gift to our parish in orchestrating this program each month.”
According to Patty Rosno, the large size of St. Joseph’s parish can make it challenging to meet fellow parishioners.
“The idea of getting to meet other people in small groups is really appealing,” she said. “We’ve met new people every month.”
Patty Flynn believes the casual, low-key environment of the dinners is what has helped make the program successful.
“When you are sitting around the table together, everyone is part of the conversation. There is no agenda and people can just get to know one another in an informal way,” she said. “It can really become a basis for building relationships.”
“I really think this is the single best thing I’ve experienced as part of parish life,” said Chris Burr. “You get the chance to talk to people for more than 15 minutes at a time. The conversations can bounce from sports to politics to religion, and you can just spend time with people.”
The “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” program will celebrate its first anniversary in May with a potluck gathering in the Great Hall at St. Joseph Church that all participants will be invited to attend.
“When I was first trying to get the program off the ground, Bill said to me, ‘Patty, if God wants this at St. Joe’s, he’s going to find a way to make it work,’” she said with a smile. “So far, things have worked out pretty well.”
Tips to start a dinner program
» Talk with your parish pastor.
» Place notices in the parish bulletin.
» Set up an information/registration table in the back of church after weekend Masses.
» Set a regular day and time each month, but allow participants to opt out of any date.
» Maintain a database of all names and e-mail addresses, with color-coded index cards to set the groupings for each host home to mix the groups.
» Questions? Contact Patty Flynn via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell us ‘what works’ at your parish, school
The Catholic Spirit is looking for story ideas for its “What Works” series.
We want to hear from parishes and schools about an idea, plan, project or program that is currently showing successful results.
Submitters should explain the purpose of the initiative and outline the steps that led to success.
Our goal is to give parishes and schools an opportunity to share ideas for doing ministry more effectively and/or more efficiently.
» E-mail your story idea to: WhatWorks@archspm.org
» Or mail your idea to: “What Works,” c/o The Catholic Spirit, 244 Dayton Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102. Please include your name, parish and daytime telephone number.