Stewardship from the ground floor, walls to come later

Written by Frank Sinatra
We’ve all heard the saying, “The church isn’t the building, it’s the people.” You won’t find a truer example locally than Saint Katharine Drexel in Egg Harbor Township, where there is a community center and parish offices, but not a physical “church.” There are no grand doors opening up to the vestibule; no stained glass windows casting rainbow reflections on the pews; no bells ringing from a tall tower. Yet the church is very real and present, with a faith community committed to stewardship.

The Parish of Saint Katharine Drexel was formed in 2000 on land donated to the Diocese of Camden from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In a true spirit of stewardship, parishioners helped to raise funds to build the “Drexel Hall” parish life center. The debt for that project was completely paid off in March 2016.

“Would we like to build a church? That’s definitely our goal. We’re still building community,” says Father John J. Vignone, who has served as pastor for the last 13 years.

Much of that church community was eager to be a part of something starting from the ground up. Chris and Ellen Barnes, who had moved to Egg Harbor Township in 1999, were drawn to Saint Katharine Drexel from the very beginning, bringing their growing family there 17 years ago.

“We’ve been here since day one,” says Ellen. “It’s amazing to see how much it’s grown, how involved people are, how exciting it is.”

“As soon as the church was open, we said, ‘We’re going there,’” adds Chris.

Prior to the completion of the parish life center, Mass was first said at a local school for many years.

“We would set ‘the church’ up with chairs and an altar; after Mass, we’d break down the chairs,” explains Ellen. “I had two children baptized at that school. It’s kind of funny, but everyone’s so passionate about it.”

And as the parish continued to grow, so did Chris and Ellen’s family, as well as their commitment to stewardship. And true to form, all it took was someone willing to say “yes” when asked.

“The first thing we got involved with was Baptism Prep,” says Ellen. “I think what Father John did was ask people with a lot of kids; and we have a large family. I’ve been doing that for many years. One thing leads to another; they ask me to be a part of lifelong faith formation. That led to parish counsel. Then just a couple years ago, I started teaching religious education.”

The couple’s sons, Jack, Erick, Luke, Mikey and Alec, have become active members of the church community. Jack and Luke have received leadership training for youth ministry and help with youth group. The boys have all been altar servers, and volunteer their time with parish activities throughout the year.

“It’s important to be active with the church,” says Erick. “You’re not just there; you’re actually being a part of it.”

“The youth are an important part of the body of the church,” adds Luke. “We’re going to shape the future.”

“I like playing a bigger role at church,” says Mikey. “I hope to have more responsibilities on the altar.”

“It’s good to be an altar server. It makes the Mass go by quicker,” adds Alec.

Being more involved and engaged, not just by being an active participant at Mass, but also embracing a role in stewardship, no matter how big or small, can make a real difference in creating a vibrant parish community.

“It takes so much to run a parish. I’m realizing that now after attending many, many meetings and activities,” explains Ellen. “It is what you make of it. There’s not going to be a parish unless you volunteer. We’d have very, very little without volunteers.”

With Saint Katharine Drexel’s parish center completely paid off, the focus of stewardship has moved away from the financial and more toward developing active members of the Body of Christ.

“Stewardship is bringing the message of Jesus to everyone we meet through word and action. It’s encompasses all aspects of who we are as a parish,” explains Father Vignone. “People need to support the parish with their time and talent and treasure and do that to the best of their ability.

“Right now, we are embarking a new phase, which is to just make sure we are on the right track with all of our ministries. Our goal and our parish mission is to welcome all, and to foster the unity that is created from our diversity.”

The many ministries at Saint Katharine Drexel are coordinated by the pastoral associate, Sister Dorothy Urban, SSJ, affectionately known as “Sister Dot.” The parish offers a variety of opportunities to get involved, including spiritual life and life formation, liturgy and worship, and the youth and young adult ministry.

One important stewardship initiative is the parish’s involvement with the Atlantic County Prison Ministry. Inspired by a parishioner who was involved in a similar program in Hawaii, members of the Saint Katharine Drexel community visit prisoners, donate hygiene items, and bring Communion to incarcerated Catholics. Father Vignone also goes to hear confessions from time to time.

“Parishioners come to me with ideas like the prison ministry and ask, ‘Can we do this?’ From there, they make it happen. It’s become a very active ministry,” says Father Vignone.

Father Vignone is also excited about Saint Katharine Drexel’s Stephen Ministry, where caregivers go through intense sessions of learning and listening so that they can provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to someone in need.

“It’s really an amazing ministry spearheaded by Bishop Sullivan,” adds Father Vignone. “We’re blessed that Sister Dot takes this on full time. It’s really a great help.”

“Getting people in ministry is always a challenge; people’s lives are so busy,” explains Sister Dot. “My job is to work myself out of a job; to get someone mentored into my position and to get more and more people involved in the parish.

“What are the gifts God has given me? The greatest gift is time. How can I tithe that back to the parish? My dream is that every parishioner would be doing something.”

Saint Katharine Drexel is being built brick by spiritual brick. The parish has grown substantially in recent years. And there are so many activities and stewardship opportunities in the parish, the weekly bulletin has expanded to 12 pages.

“The Barnes family has been tremendous; Ellen and Chris and the boys have been really been instrumental. We have many really great families. They help out all the time,” says Sister Dot. “We’re growing as parish. It’s been a concerted effort on everybody’s part. It’s just amazing. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

For more information on stewardship, contact Deacon Russell Davis, Office of Stewardship, 856-583-6102.