North Side parish celebrating rebirth

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JOHN FRANKO
Staff Writer

St. Peter Parish on Pittsburgh's North Side is taking the message of a Church Alive to heart.

 It is moving from a parish that said "we can't," to one that says "We can."

 "Not only are we praising God, but we are enjoying each other," said Barbara Parks, a longtime member of the parish.

 In an age when many parishes are experiencing a decline in numbers, the parish has seen a significant increase. The October count of Mass attendance showed a 20 percent increase, but Benedictine Father Vincent Zidek, pastor, pointed out that in other months it has been almost 30 percent.

 The rise in Mass attendance has mirrored the interest in parish groups and activities.

 "If you can relate to the people in the parish, do things that are interesting and fun, it (the parish) really does come alive," said Barbara Basile, president of the pastoral council. "I am very excited."

 The music ministry has become much more vibrant under the direction of David Butler. The adult choir has grown significantly and a children's choir was formed. A Kids' Fest for children in kindergarten through sixth grade is now held monthly, and a youth group was formed for junior high and high school students.

 A monthly Tapping Theology gathering at Penn Brewery targets those 21 and older.

 "We want people to know that we are here and that there are many opportunities for them to grow in their faith," Father Vincent said.

 The average age of parishioners had risen significantly in the 1980s and '90s, and the absence of young families and single adults led to a drop in enthusiasm in the parish. That trend has begun to reverse itself in the past several years, however, as young people and families have moved back into the area.

 Father Vincent recalled that he was sitting in neighboring West Park with his parents more than a year ago when they noted the presence of many younger people. He wanted to make sure that they knew the parish was there for them, and he began to look for ways to make them feel welcome.

 He met with the pastoral and finance councils to discuss ways St. Peter could become more vibrant and healthy.

 "Together, we realized that if we want things to happen, we have to make them happen," he said. "We can't wait for others."

 He credited the councils for having the vision to move forward.

 Michele Roberts, director of youth ministry, has lived around the country. She was used to thriving parishes that focused on family and church life.

 She said she sees that with Father Vincent's approach, which focuses on hospitality to all age groups through multi- and cross-generational functions.

 "He's spirit-led," she said.

 The Kids' Fest features crafts, food and games, and has followed themes such as "Black and Gold Night," "Harry Potter Fest" and "Kids' Mardi Gras." Some of the events have drawn close to 70 children, and an Easter egg hunt drew about the same number.

 Patricia Kammersell, cathechetical administrator, said that while the parish has always been welcoming, it is now more active in outreach, hospitality, and programs for children, teens and families.

 She also noted the parish's Sunday outdoor Masses in West Park, which are held monthly from May to August.

 "People saw us and really got into it, so when we came indoors they followed us," she said. "It really had a nice community feeling to it."

 The next outdoor Mass will be Sunday, May 26, at 10:30 a.m. Ice cream sundaes will be served afterward.

 Teresa Flaherty is a member of the choir, and her son has joined the children's choir. She noted that the size of the bulletin has doubled because of all the new activities.

 "He keeps everyone informed," she said of Father Vincent. "He's always there."

 Colin Finkbeiner, a lifelong resident of the area, is active with the Tapping Theology program. He said that for many years parishes in the area were closing and "beautiful" buildings were empty.

 Finkbeiner noted that, as an increasingly vibrant parish, St. Peter is letting people know that it is a real Catholic presence on the North Side.

 "We're trying to say that we're here and we're going to be here," he said. "I found that very encouraging. I think a lot of folks did."

 Tapping Theology generally attracts 15-20 people. They include a speaker, Q&A session and a chance to socialize.

 Holly Welty-Barr spoke of how the parish is reaching out on different levels. She noted the effect the children's choir has had on the congregation.

  "When you hear their voices you see people around you smile," she said.

  She noted the importance of having a youth group where young people can have fun in a safe environment, and she said activities such as the Good Friday procession carrying Jesus to the tomb are getting people to stop and think about what they symbolize.

 

  Welty-Barr recalled the words of a fellow parishioner, who told her: "Miracles abound. I never thought I'd see what I'm seeing here."

 The parish has two worship sites: St. Peter and Our Lady Queen of Peace churches.

Among Father Vincent's goals is to renovate the mechanism operating the church bells at the St. Peter site. The bells were being rung only twice a day, so he began a drive to update the system. They now ring several times a day.

 "It's a way of letting people in the community know that we're here," he said.

 Welty-Barr noted the joy of her sons when they heard the bells rung for the election of Pope Francis.

 "It's so great to hear the bells," she recalled them saying. "The church is alive."

 The system will continue to be updated as funds are raised. The goal is to have the bells rung on the hour.

Father Vincent described many other signs of life. Babies are now heard crying in Mass, he noted, and he spoke of how "wonderful" it is to find Cheerios on the floor.

 "It's the sign of new life," he said. "It's the sign of hope."

Parks left the North Side area briefly, but she returned last year. She has been touched by the regrowth and the efforts of Father Vincent.

 "I really think we're building community," she said. "I'm just happy to be part of it all again."

 Basile noted the enthusiasm of the parish, pointing out that programs no one thought would work are flourishing.

 She also recognized Father Vincent for instilling a sense of wonder about Catholicism.

 "We are all so thrilled to have him with us," she said. "He's the energy that we need there. And it's contagious."

 More information on the parish can be found at www.stpeterparish.org, or on Facebook at "Saint Peter Parish."