Sunday, April 30, 2017 - Updated: 8:00 am
It was an unusual sight — an urban Catholic church on a Saturday evening filled with young adults, families and older couples lifting their voices in song. The Festival of Praise held every month at Holy Apostles Parish in South Pittsburgh draws parishioners, members of neighboring parishes and even some non-Catholics for contemporary music and prayer.
The joy-filled service is one visible sign of a rebirth at Holy Apostles, recently created from four struggling faith communities. Their journey began prior to the On Mission for The Church Alive! planning process, yet the parish already is experiencing the renewal and evangelization that can happen when resources are mobilized for the mission. Parishioners are embracing change as they merge ministries, form friendships and welcome back inactive Catholics.
Leading this effort is Father Steve Kresak, who experienced the merger of his home parish in McKees Rocks before he became a priest. Much later, as a pastor in McKeesport, he successfully brought together three parishes.
In 2014, Father Kresak was assigned to lead St. Wendelin and St. Basil parishes in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood, founded in 1873 and 1907, respectively; St. Norbert in the Overbrook neighborhood, 1914; and St. Albert the Great in Baldwin, 1956. They formally became Holy Apostles Parish last September, and are witnessing a positive attitude, energy and growth.
“Our outreach to seniors has brought family members back to the church because they’ve seen how well their parents and grandparents are being treated,” Father Kresak said. After surveying more than 500 parishioners age 85 and older, volunteers are visiting more homebound elderly, bringing Communion and arranging for clergy to come and offer reconciliation and anointing of the sick.
Meanwhile, new members have joined from the former St. John Vianney Parish in the city’s Hilltop neighborhood.
Achieving such a rejuvenation requires work at building new relationships and creating community among people who were once strangers.
“Coming together has been a challenge, but we’ve grown and everyone enjoys each other,” said Donna Kratina, co-president of the Christian Mothers & Women’s Guild, a social organization that hosts a monthly food bank collection, runs a bingo game twice annually and supports other parish events. “We had different fundraisers and different traditions, but we’ve learned to compromise and try to extend our hands to everyone.”
The Ladies of Charity ministry now draws members from all four churches and has more resources to help others than it did before the merger. Its Lenten Nails project collected donations for different social service agencies during each week of Lent, according to president Helene Scheider. The Ladies of Charity also reach out to parishioners in nursing homes, are present at funerals, and send sympathy cards when a parishioner passes away as well as on the one-year anniversary of the person’s death.
“Change opens new doors and opportunities,” she said. “As we’ve gotten to know one another, we’ve blended. I am so privileged to be part of this merger — God has truly blessed me.”
“The idea of change is worse than the change itself,” Father Kresak said. “I’ve seen parishioners get to know each other, hug one another and ask how their families are doing.
“They love our new name, Holy Apostles Parish,” he said. “I’ve been telling them to imagine what the apostles must have gone through in starting a new church. They had ups and downs, just like us. But they kept moving forward.”
The Men’s Prayer and Fellowship group received a boost as members came together from the four churches. The men go on retreat and discuss books such as Matthew Kelly’s “Rediscover Jesus.” They also have taken a turn hosting the Festival of Praise, greeting worshipers, preparing and serving food and cleaning up, said the group’s leader, Mike Woshner.
“I’ve met so many more people who I didn’t know,” he said. “And I’ve been more conscious of growing in my relationship with Jesus.”
The choirs merged over time, initially rehearsing together for large parish functions such as first holy Communion, confirmation and Bishop David Zubik’s Easter Sunday visit. Now they are one unified group, singing the same music at all the Masses, though they still perform separate choral pieces.
There is one parish festival and one parish picnic.
Still ahead is the decision of which worship sites will remain in the future, but they are approaching it from a missionary viewpoint. Father Kresak has heard parishioners say to one another, ‘that’s okay, we will get through it together.’
As other parishes across the diocese prepare for similar changes, Father Kresak offered some thoughts.
“Remember that we are the living, breathing spirit of the church,” he said. “We are not limited by bricks and buildings — we are doing the work of Christ.
“It’s rewarding for me to see the parishioners working hand in hand, supporting and loving one another as they support and minister to their fellow parishioners,” Father Kresak added. “I’ve really been blessed in my priesthood. I’ve learned a lot from the people about what really matters — being together on the same mission.”