Word on the streets

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

New evangelization efforts bring new life to Minneapolis parish


Rogelio Aguilar, left, and Katy O’Brien of St. Stephen in Minneapolis greet Chris Fisher at a bus stop on Hennepin Avenue in the Uptown area of Minneapolis March 23 as part of the parish Easter Mission, in which missionaries go out on the streets to evangelize in the nearby neighborhoods. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Rogelio Aguilar, left, and Katy O’Brien of St. Stephen in Minneapolis greet Chris Fisher at a bus stop on Hennepin Avenue in the Uptown area of Minneapolis March 23 as part of the parish Easter Mission, in which missionaries go out on the streets to evangelize in the nearby neighborhoods. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

It was Christmas Eve in 2008 and Father Joseph Williams, the new pastor of St. Stephen in Minneapolis, was getting ready to celebrate Mass.

Snow was gently falling outside, seeming to create the perfect mood for celebrating the birth of Jesus.

But there was a problem — no worshippers.

“We’re in the sacristy,” Father Williams recalled. “The deacon [Deacon Luis Rubi], as he was vesting, looks out and he says, ‘Father, would you like me to be the deacon or the congregation?’ There was nobody in the church, except for our administrator, who came out of retirement to play the piano.”

The church had fallen on hard times, and despite intensive efforts by its new shepherd, membership took a nosedive. Father Williams had been brought in by Archbishop Harry Flynn in the spring of 2008 to try and revitalize this inner-city parish.

He had dialogue with a small but fervent group of parishioners, explaining that he was asked to take the parish in a new direction. After many conversations with them, most  decided to leave.

Father Williams sought advice from Archbishop John Nienstedt, who had just succeeded Archbishop Flynn. Father Williams was both comforted and inspired by what his new pastoral leader told him in a one-on-one meeting about St. Stephen.

“Archbishop Nienstedt very prophetically said, ‘Something will have to die for something else to be reborn,’” Father Williams said. “And, those words stuck with me. That’s what we lived in the fall of 2008. . . . We lost 90 percent of our plate income. . . . We lost most of our worshippers.”

That Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 could be considered a Good Friday of sorts. And, like the Gospel accounts, the resurrection was soon to follow. Instead of sitting around and waiting for people to come to church, Father Williams decided to go out and get them — literally.

Going door to door

As a member of the Emmanuel Community, an international Catholic organization, Father Williams incorporated a model of evangelization used by the group. He opened an evangelization training program called the School of St. Paul. People would attend weekly meetings, then take that training to the streets in the neighborhoods near the church.

While white, English-speaking people were leaving, Father Williams was busy making plans to draw in the Latinos now populating the area. His fluency in Spanish was part of the reason Archbishop Flynn asked him to be pastor, and part of the reason he was excited about the opportunity.

Another key piece to the new effort was hiring Katy O’Brien, also fluent in Spanish, who came in August 2008 as the coordinator of Hispanic ministry. A graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, double majoring in Spanish and Hispanic studies, she was one of the first teachers in the School of St. Paul. And, she joins the “graduates” every year for the Easter Mission of evangelizing door-to-door and in other public places near the church.

“It’s scary. I had not done anything like that before,” she said. “And, every time I do it, I get nervous.”

But overriding the anxiety is the conviction that evangelization is central to living the Catholic faith. Father Williams remembers hearing that message while he was studying to become a priest.

“I remember very clearly Archbishop Flynn coming to the St. Paul Seminary on one of our days of formation, lamenting what he called the come-and-get-it attitude of many Catholic parishes, which says, ‘We have what you need, the sacraments, you know where to find us, come and get it.’” Father Williams said.

“Really, the Church needs to die to that way of being,” he said. “Maybe that was passable 50 years ago because of a stronger Christian culture. It’s not any longer. We have to die to that way of being Church, which says come and get it, to live to the perennial way of being Church, which is ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’”

The “new” work of evangelization hit the ground on the day before Palm Sunday, when several dozen parishioners, speaking both Spanish and English, left the comfort of the church building to hit the streets.

Some walked in pairs near the church, knocking on doors and greeting their neighbors. To make sure they could converse with every resident, one person spoke English, the other Spanish.

Others walked to nearby stores and markets, while another group, led by O’Brien, targeted a large bus stop on Hennepin Avenue in the city’s Uptown area. About a dozen people gathered to sing and pray, then some people broke off in pairs to talk to individuals waiting for buses.

Though prepared for rejection, they found people willing to talk, including Minneapolis resident Chris Fisher, who talked with O’Brien and her evangelization partner, Rogelio Aguilar.

“It was good to see people out here spreading their faith and their beliefs and trying to help others find faith,” said Fisher, who smiled and shook hands with O’Brien and Aguilar at the end of the conversation. “It’s nice to see their dedication.”

The 40 or so members of St. Stephen were joined by about 20 parishioners from St. Henry in Monticello. Its pastor, Father Tony Vanderloop, heard about the program and invited his parishioners to enroll in the School of St. Paul. In fact, Father Williams decided to bring the school to St. Henry.

“We love to share this grace with those who are open to receive it,” said Father Williams, who also went to St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony to talk about the mission program. “The School of St. Paul in Monticello was born of the fact that Father Tony Vanderloop invited me to his parish just to see his new assignment. We had lunch together, we walked through his church.

“But then, we went through the neighborhoods, and there were Latino families and children everywhere. And I said, ‘How many [Latinos] do you have at a Sunday Mass, Tony?’ He said about 60. I said, ‘Sixty? There’s hundreds of Latinos [in the area], most of whom identify as Catholics. In that situation, it became clear that there’s a whole group of lost sheep, and that they’re not going to have their rediscovery unless we have a renewal in our own missionary calling as baptized



Father Joseph Williams, right, pastor of St. Stephen in Minneapolis, and Teresa Aguilar sing during a time of praise and worship as they and others prepare to go out on the streets for the parish Easter Mission March 23. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Growing membership

These days, sparse attendance at St. Stephen Masses is a thing of the past, in terms of Latino participation. Come to the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass in Spanish, and you won’t find an empty spot in the whole church. Latinos squeeze into the pews and spill out to the gathering area and the choir loft. As more Latinos find their way to the church, there is slow growth in the English-speaking crowd as well.

“Today, in the English Mass, we have a Sunday attendance of about 100,” O’Brien said. “And then, [at] the Spanish Masses, probably about 800 within the two Masses. We have one at 9 [a.m.] and one at 6 [p.m.]. At the 9 o’clock Mass, it’s standing room only. . . . We’re packed, basically. We have people sitting in chairs in the trancepts and people sitting in the choir loft.”

It all begins with taking the initiative to walk the streets and talk with a stranger. With four years of street evangelism under their belts, members of St. Stephen are learning that the people they meet on the streets today may be their evangelism partners tomorrow.

“Just last week when we had a missionary reunion, we had people who came to the church and said, ‘Hey, you knocked on my door and that’s why I’m here now,’” O’Brien said. “These are the people that are being formed as the next missionaries, which is cool.”

At the Easter Vigil on Saturday, Father Williams will make the connection crystal clear. He will ask the congregation to divide into two parts — those who have come and are coming into the Church (whom he labels the order of catechumens), and those who do street evangelization (order of missionaries).

“What I asked for very intentionally was the order of catechumens to be on one side of the church and the order of missionaries to be on the other so that we could see a relationship between the two of them,” he said. “It’s very symbolically powerful.”

And, the missionary work is not finished yet. Though Father Williams is enjoying the present, he also has an eye fixed in the future.

“It feels like we’re just on the front end of our work, our evangelization work,” he said. “In other words, I don’t see an end to the flourishing, at this point. It’s just that rich. It’s not the numbers, it’s people coming to Christ, who is alive and changing their lives.”

“Marriages are being reconciled, children are coming back — parents and children being reconciled,” he said. “People are learning how to praise God joyfully. And, it’s a beauty to behold. What I’m seeing and what’s developed here is not just a once-for-all missionary impulse; a new rhythm has been born at this parish.”

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