IRONDEQUOIT -- Sarah Goodenough felt a desire to come back to church again, thanks in part to her 7-year-old son, Sam.
"He loves church," said Goodenough, whose family belongs to St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish. "I felt so compelled ... to find my faith again."
Last year, she began attending Mass with Sam and her grandmother, Margaret Lennertz, at St. Margaret Mary Church, which is part of St. Kateri. Goodenough said she then went a step further on her faith journey last fall by joining her grandmother in attending the parish's Catholic version of Alpha, an interdenominational program that aims to help Christians explore and deepen their faith.
When Lennertz had first mentioned the program to her, Goodenough said she put off signing up for it. But there came a day when she felt a wave of emotion that told her to listen to her grandmother, Goodenough said.
The Alpha program wound up being such a good fit for her, she noted, that she returned this winter for a second 10-week session. Exploring her faith through Alpha has even led Goodenough to choose to be confirmed this Easter, and her son will make his first Eucharist, she said.
"Alpha has been great, and the format is awesome," Goodenough said. "Every time I leave, I think of the bigger picture (of life) again ... and it feels like a weight has been lifted."
Goodenough and her family are among the more than 27 million people across the globe who have gone through the Alpha program, including participants from thousands of Catholic parishes, according to information at http://alphausa.org/catholic. St. Kateri is one of several parishes in the Diocese of Rochester that offers Alpha; others include Rochester's St. Anne Church and All Saint Parish in Corning.
Last fall, nearly 30 people registered for St. Anne's Alpha program then continued in the second session that began in January, said Deacon John McDermott, who serves St. Anne and Our Lady of Lourdes in Brighton. The St. Anne participants include students from the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, he added, and they have begun inviting friends to attend.
"The parish wanted to feed a growing desire for adult faith formation of those in the pews, enhance the sense of community for those in the parish and help people feel more confident to talk about their faith with others," Deacon McDermott wrote in an e-mail. "Our ultimate hope is that Alpha will become a vehicle for the increasing number of unchurched or formerly churched people living in our neighborhoods to learn more about Christianity."
To help foster that learning, each Alpha gathering begins with fellowship over a shared meal, Deacon McDermott, then segues into viewing a video that explores spiritual questions. After the video, participants take part in small-group discussions on the topics viewed in the video.
During the Feb. 8 Alpha session at St. Kateri, topics around the dinner table ranged from exercise, news about other parishes and even dairy farms.
"Fellowship is important," noted Colleen Trevisani, young-adult ministry coordinator at St. Kateri. "And with a meal, you start discussing your daily life."
The format helps people feel comfortable as they move into talking about their faith, Trevisani said, so they may understand the common ground that Christians of different ages share.
"You get them comfortable with the idea, 'Is there more to life than this?'" she said. "Then what is the meaning of life. What does it mean to be happy? And you go on to, 'Who is Jesus?'"
Talking about the answers to these questions proved so appealing to St. Kateri participants that several of them who took part in the initial Alpha offerings followed up by enrolling in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults or becoming Alpha facilitators, Trevisani said. The parish also is offering a Teen Alpha program, which currently has about six participants, she added.
Mark Keller is one of those who became a facilitator after going through St. Kateri's Alpha program last summer. His experience as a convert to Catholicism 11 years ago also helps him in that role, he said.
"It's neat talking to people (who are) where I was and helping them find the answer to their questions or helping them live with their questions," which they may further explore in subsequent sessions, Keller said.