Parish evangelization teams don’t let pandemic slow them down

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Father Ryszard Gron, pastor at St. William Parish in Chicago, left, visits with volunteers from the parish’s Spanish Masses during a luncheon at Agostino’s Ristorante, 2817 Harlem Ave. on Oct. 18, 2020. The volunteers are part of the parish’s evangelization team, which has rallied its efforts during the pandemic. Because of social distancing, separate luncheons will be held for volunteers from English and Polish Masses. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Sometimes sharing the Good News means making sure people are in a place where they can hear it.

That’s the conclusion of parish evangelization teams, created as part of the Renew My Church process, that shifted from hosting in-person Alpha sessions during the pandemic.

While many parishes moved to holding Alpha online, others decided they had to go back to basics. They spent time during the pandemic calling people in their parishes to find out what they needed, and they planned for the reopening of their parishes.

They called on those who had participated in their in-person Alpha sessions before the pandemic to help, giving them the opportunity to move towards missionary discipleship. As they called people, they found more and more who wanted to get involved and help.

That’s how it worked for Aida Rodriguez, who has been working on the evangelization team at St. William Parish, 2600 N. Sayre Ave., for more than a year.

“The pandemic kind of forced us to go out of our comfort zone,” Rodriguez said. “We got together with other organizations in the parish. It forced us to basically find different ways to reach people, to be more reactive. We started calling people to check on them, to find out if they were okay. We developed a prayer group online in Spanish, and one of the deacons started to do a prayer group online in English.”

Father Ryszard Gron, St. William’s pastor, said the team helped find and organize enough volunteers to safely reopen the church for Masses in English, Polish and Spanish in July, as well as for adoration, sacraments like baptism and reconciliation and special events, such as the October rosary crusade, which includes a Mass followed by the rosary in five languages.

That’s exactly what Elizabeth White, director of the Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, hoped to see.

“Opening parishes, being greeters is a foundation for what we are doing,” White said. “Hospitality is important for evangelization. It’s a muscle they’re developing right now that we’ll work on. At St. William, the evangelization team helped open up the parish for prayer. Prayer is a foundational piece for evangelization.”

Gron said the parish has a steady roster of about 15 volunteers to prepare, welcome people and clean the church for each language group.

“I’m surprised to hear from other parishes that they have problems with getting volunteers and we don’t,” he said. “Everything comes much easier, more smoothly. This is thanks to Renew My Church. … We made a lot of evangelization projects like sending cards during the Easter season, like calling the people. We did this before it was suggested from the archdiocese.”

Elisa Rivera, a member of the evangelization team at St. William, said the group collected phone numbers and emails and stayed in touch with parishioners by phone, text, email and postcards for those who didn’t have internet access.

“We did so many things then,” Rivera said. “They needed to know we were here, even though the building was closed.”

“At the beginning, when we first called, they were a little suspicious,” Rodriguez said. “After we talked to them, and they realized that we were just calling to see how they were doing, they were very appreciative and they were very thankful that we remembered them and that we cared for them. We would tell them we would pray for them and they said they will pray for us too, for the church to reopen.”

The team had been talking about starting a greeting committee before the pandemic, Rodriguez said. That has happened now because of the requirements for church reopening.

Volunteers at St. Mother Theodore Guerin Parish, with worship sites in Elmwood Park and River Grove, also called all of the parish’s members during the Easter season, and mailed each parishioner a blessed palm that had been folded into a cross, said Kim Haggerty, director of evangelization and Christian life for the parish.

Its evangelization team was in the middle of its first Alpha session when the pandemic shut things down in March, but about a third of the people in that Alpha session are having informal meetings online, and many of them are among the volunteers making it possible to have Mass each weekend at both worship sites.

The parish also started livestreaming Mass on Facebook early in the pandemic, and encouraged people to comment during the stream to create a connection, Haggerty said.

“A plus to that has been that former parishioners who have moved to other states often join us on Sunday and it is great to see them,” she said. “Interesting, too, is the response of people: hitting the ‘like’ or ‘love’ button during songs that they like or to parts of a sermon that they like. And everyone greeting each other at the Sign of Peace. People find a way to communicate.”

Volunteers also reached out to get more parishioner emails, Haggerty said, and the list has grown from 200 in March to almost 2,000, which makes it easier to communicate and foster engagement.

“The parishioners had fun uploading pictures of their pets for the virtual blessing of the animals on the feast of St. Francis, and we got a good response to people sharing pictures of their shrines to Mary in their home or garden,” she said.

St. Paul Parish, 2127 W. 22nd Place, has also found more volunteers through its evangelization team, said Monica Pabon, the parish director of operations.

“We managed to get a fresh new wave of volunteers that are helping, plus our regular rock star volunteers,” she said. “We were able to reach more people than we were before. A lot of the people who are helping now are people who came through Alpha. It’s a lot of coordinating.”

Many of the volunteers became more active while the church was closed and they were calling parishioners and connecting them to services to meet their needs.

“This person would say they need groceries, and the parish does direct service, so we would connect them to that,” Pabon said. “There were a lot of parishioners that were hit with COVID. There were a lot of families where the moms got sick, and there was no one who knew how to cook, so they needed hot meals. So we had volunteers cook and drop off hot meals. Then we started providing them with restaurant deliveries too until the mom could cook again.”

Now that the church is open for Masses, the calls haven’t stopped. Now the wellness committee calls people who have come to Mass to get their feedback.

“Most of them say they feel very safe here,” Pabon said.

Rodriguez, from St. William Parish, said the pandemic drove home the importance of flexibility for people working to evangelize people around them.

“We need to be willing to change,” she said. “We need to be willing to be open and explore different ways, but also to be patient and understanding, and to truly believe that the Holy Spirit is leading us in the process.”


  • renew my church
  • evangelization
  • covid-19

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