Our Lady of the Snow Parish in northern Cayuga County has big plans for the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, but they don’t include parades and green beer.
Rather, the parish plans to celebrate the March 17 feast day, as well the March 19 feast day of St. Joseph, with a trio of events designed to welcome new parishioners or parishioners who’ve been away from the parish for awhile.
The parish will hold a breakfast March 13 after the 8:30 a.m. Mass at St. Patrick Church in Cato, a reception March 19 after the 5 p.m. Mass at St. John Church in Port Byron, and a celebration March 20 after the 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph Church in Weedsport.
These events represent just one of the ways the parish is encouraging new and current parishioners alike to make Our Lady of the Snow their spiritual home. Father John Gathenya, parochial administrator, also is encouraging anyone interested to attend his six-week Awakening Faith program, which will begin March 7. Each evening session will include conversation, discussion, and reflection on the catechetical themes of Catholic spirituality, Jesus, mercy, reconciliation, Mass and church. Father Gathenya said he hopes this series will facilitate the homecoming of Catholics who have been away from the church and help them to fully connect with their Catholic faith.
"It’s open for those interested in Bible study as well. Even if there is nobody but us, we’ll welcome each other, because some days we are in such a rush that we don’t even know the person next to us in the pew," he added.
Our Lady of the Snow began holding welcoming events in 2009, shortly after Father Gathenya arrived at the parish, he told the Catholic Courier. Representatives from the local Knights of Columbus council proposed the idea as a way to draw in people who were registered at the parish but rarely attended Mass.
"Our estimated number of parishioners was 660, and yet we never saw even one-third of that number in the church," Father Gathenya explained. "The purpose of the program is to give the people an opportunity to reconnect back with the community and the faith."
That first year, the Knights of Columbus sent an invitation to every single person registered in the parish, and the event drew 13 parishioners who’d been away from Our Lady of the Snow for varying amounts of time.
"I gave them an opportunity to come and talk to me and consider sharing with me why they had decided not to join our community. And I had some interesting answers," Father Gathenya said with a laugh, recalling one parishioner who said the priest’s Kenyan accent made him difficult to understand.
Father Gathenya said he was surprised but not offended by this revelation, and he was glad the parishioner felt comfortable enough to be honest with him.
"However, that was not the major reason," he added.
St. Joseph, St. Patrick and St. John merged to form Our Lady of the Snow in 2005, and with that consolidation came changes in Mass times and religious-education offerings at the three sites. These changes prompted some parishioners to find other places to worship and enroll their children in faith formation, and Father Gathenya said he was happy to hear these displaced parishioners had found new parish homes. It’s the former parishioners who no longer attend Mass anywhere that he’s concerned about, he said.
Nonetheless, some of these parishioners are starting to come back, in part due to the parish’s focus on being a welcoming spiritual home, the priest noted.
"People do tell me that they see some old faces that are reappearing back in the church. I have been receiving positive remarks from the people that know them," he said.
The outreach efforts have been successful in more measurable ways as well, Father Gathenya said, noting that the parish met its goal in the annual diocesan Catholic Ministries Appeal this year. In previous years, the parish typically fell $7,000 or $8,000 short of its goal, he said. Between 150 and 200 children are enrolled in the parish’s faith-formation program, which also is a major accomplishment for a parish the size of Our Lady of the Snow, he added.
Nonetheless, Mass attendance is still declining and there still is work to be done on the welcoming front, he said. In fact, Father Gathenya knows of several individuals who regularly attend Mass but don’t receive Communion because they don’t feel they belong or aren’t comfortable with their knowledge of their Catholic faith. He hopes his Awakening Faith program will help these people feel comfortable participating in the eucharistic feast, he said.
Father Gathenya is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his ordination this year, and said the return of long-lost parishioners would be the best gift he could possibly receive.
"I’d love to welcome them," he said. "If you’re unable to come every Sunday, you’re still welcome because this is your home."