Teen held key role in parish - Catholic Courier

Teen held key role in parish

It’s not exactly typical for a teenager to possess a master key to his or her church, but for the past four years Kateri Whirtley, 18, has done just that.

Sister Chris Treichel, pastoral administrator at Sacred Heart Parish in Auburn and St. Ann Parish in Owasco, hired Whirtley to serve as Sacred Heart’s sacristan in July 2008. Whirtley, who at the time was just gearing up for her freshman year of high school, was happy to have what she thought would just be a simple minimum-wage job, Whirtley recently told the Catholic Courier.

"I didn’t understand exactly what I was getting myself into. It’s not just a job where you go and show up and you’re done," said Whirtley, who will be giving up her sacristan job in August in order to start college at Niagara University.

As sacristan, Whirtley has been responsible for setting up for most of Sacred Heart’s weekend Masses. When she first started her job, that entailed setting up for the parish’s 4:30 p.m. Saturday Mass as well as its 10:30 a.m. and noon Masses each Sunday. This might prove to be a daunting task for many teens, but Whirtley wasn’t the first one to take on the sacristan position at Sacred Heart, said Sister Treichel, OSF.

"There has been a tradition of high-school students doing that, and it’s just choosing the right person. You have to find someone who doesn’t mind going to church the whole weekend," she remarked. "I see it as a way of helping a student mature and be attentive to the detail that is needed for setting up a church and be attentive to the people who might need help. It’s a big responsibility, but you see a tremendous growth in them as people begin to depend on them."

A few years after Whirtley joined the parish’s payroll Sacred Heart dropped one of its Sunday Masses, reducing Whirtley’s workload by one-third. That load decreased a bit more last year, when Sister Treichel hired another teen to help Whirtley balance the demands of her job and her busy senior year. Nonetheless, the job still kept Whirtley busy.

She arrived at Sacred Heart at about 3 p.m. each Saturday afternoon to unlock the church, turn on the lights and set up the confessional so the parish’s assisting priests, Father Felicjan Sierotowicz and Father Michael Brown, could hear confessions. After that she prepared the vessels and the altar for Mass, which required a bit of training on the names, uses and proper placement of the various vessels and linens.

"In the beginning it was hard because it was a lot of detail," Whirtley said. "After I’m done with that basically I just try to help anybody that needs help. I’m in charge of making sure all the eucharistic ministers are there and helping the altar servers get ready."

Whirtley’s job frequently requires her to solicit volunteers to serve as ushers or to bring the offertory gifts to the priest during Mass, a task which she used to dread.

"At first I was so nervous because I had to go up to random families," she said, noting that on more than one occasion the people she approached declined to help. "I think I’m developing kind of a tough skin."

Whirtley also has developed strong relationships with a number of elderly parishioners who arrive early for the Saturday-evening Mass. If she hadn’t taken the sacristan position she most likely would never have grown close to these people, she said.

Sister Treichel said she chose Whirtley for the position four years ago because the teen had a deep spirituality, and possessed the rare gift of being able to articulate that spirituality. Whirtley has grown and matured in her spirituality and her demeanor over the past four years, she said.

The sacristan position has become more than just a job for Whirtley, who said it makes her mindful of how she acts even when she’s not on the clock.

"It’s made me grow up a lot. If I’m with my friends at the mall and we’re being stupid, I kind of watch it. I see people all over. I want to be a good representative of the church," she said.

Whirtley has been active in the parish’s youth group since she was in eighth grade and has traveled with her youth group to three National Catholic Youth Conferences. The highlight of those trips came during her second convention, when she and a friend shared lunch and conversation with Bishop Matthew H. Clark. She’s also volunteered with Sacred Heart’s vacation Bible school program for several years.

Such efforts helped Whirtley earn the diocesan Hands of Christ recognition last spring, but the teen believes she’s the one who’s benefitted most from all of her involvement with Sacred Heart, and especially from her sacristan position.

"I’m really thrilled to have the relationship I do with all the parishioners," she said. "They’ve touched my life, and I hope I’ve helped them, too. It will definitely stick with me my whole life."

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