Retired pastoral associate never gave up hope

Thursday, September 13, 2018 - Updated: 10:53 am

By Jennifer Monahan Correspondent

If Barbara McCarthy’s 33-year career in ministry at St. Ferdinand Parish in Cranberry Township could be summed up in a single word, it would be “hope.”

Hope might not be the obvious choice for a child whose parents divorced so that her mother could protect her children from an abusive, alcoholic father. And devoting her life to service in the Catholic Church might not be the obvious career path for a girl who grew up amid prejudice from the Catholic community because she was the child of a divorced parent in the 1950s and ‘60s.

McCarthy’s hope in and love for God transcended her family’s difficult economic and social challenges, and she believes those circumstances are exactly what made her effective as a pastoral minister.

“Even as a 6-year-old, I loved God,” she said. “And because of my own pain, it was important to me to open doors. Life gave me all these experiences, and God gave me all the grace I needed to come through them with understanding and a heart that loves everyone.”

Though McCarthy felt a call to serve the church from an early age, she took a circuitous path to reach her eventual vocation. As a student at Marycrest High School in McCandless Township, McCarthy was in the convent of the Sisters of Divine Providence. She ultimately decided religious life was not her calling and went to work after graduation as a salesperson at Kaufmann’s Department Store. Even then, her work ethic was apparent. McCarthy said she was in charge of folding the socks and undergarments in the children’s section.

“I took it seriously,” she said with a smile. “My attitude was that I’m going to do the best I can, wherever I am.”

Her efforts were noticed by another employee, a nurse on staff at Kaufmann’s, who suggested to McCarthy that she had the qualities to make an excellent nurse — a profession McCarthy had not previously considered. After some reflection, she saved up her wages and paid her own way through practical nursing school; she became a nurse at Mercy Hospital.

“I loved nursing,” McCarthy said, “and I had the opportunity to share my faith.” Walking with patients through their illnesses provided the real-life experience that helped define her approach to parish ministry.

McCarthy left nursing when her first child was born. By the time her youngest child entered kindergarten, she and her family had moved to Cranberry Township. McCarthy began volunteering at St. Ferdinand while her children were at school. She was the first female extraordinary minister of holy Communion in parish history. She taught CCD and helped with office work. Within two years, Father Ken Oldenski, then pastor, asked her to join the staff in an official capacity and to start a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program.

Though the title of “pastoral associate” did not become common until the 1990s, her role was just that. For several years, she ran the junior high religious education and confirmation programs, and served as the program manager for adult religious education and social ministry.

Father John Gallagher, pastor of St. Ferdinand, said that over the years McCarthy instituted so many programs, activities and ministries that it was impossible to recount them all at her retirement celebration in June; the list filled two full, single-spaced, typed pages.

She said one of the most memorable ministries for her was leading RCIA because of the many lives that were touched. She shepherded more than 1,000 adults and children through St. Ferdinand’s RCIA program since 1985.

Women Gathered is another program that holds a special place in McCarthy’s heart. Since its inception 20 years ago, hundreds of women have been part of Women Gathered. At present, more than 50 women are part of the ministry, which focuses on living and learning the Catholic faith.

The comfort blanket ministry that she founded in 2002 to honor a member of the RCIA team suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) is about to surpass the 12,000-blanket mark. The small quilts are given freely to anyone who asks, and are intended to provide a tangible sign of God’s love.

To name an adult education program or ministry at St. Ferdinand is to identify something that exists because McCarthy either had an inspiration herself or she supported someone else’s idea and helped bring it to fruition. That support for laypeople is among the hallmarks of her life.

“What I really appreciate about Barb as an ecumenical minister is that she empowers people,” said Walt Scott, a parishioner. “She looks for people with a passion and helps them along with it.”

Scott speaks from experience. He and his wife, Wilma, helped begin St. Ferdinand’s mission and outreach ministry, fostering a sister-parish connection between St. Ferdinand and Holy Spirit Parish in San Luis, Mexico. He said the ministry would not have taken root but for McCarthy’s behind-the-scenes support.

When McCarthy set out to re-establish Cranberry Township’s ecumenical Council of Churches a few years ago, she invited Walt Scott to join her. They partnered with pastors from various other Christian churches in the area to collaborate on common issues. The group hosts service days and regular prayer services that bring together people of different faith traditions, and even sponsored a joint mission trip to Mexico.

Beyond inviting people to participate, McCarthy listened to every person who came to her door.

“Barb always has time for people,” Father Gallagher said. “She ran all these different programs and was always very busy, but she would welcome people who stopped by.”

McCarthy said having people stop in to discuss an issue or share an idea has been one of the highlights of her work, and being with parishioners is the thing she will most miss in retirement.

She said many of the parish’s programs resulted from those impromptu conversations. Parishioner Jan Shaffer had the idea to make clothing, hats and blankets for premature babies in neonatal intensive care units. She approached McCarthy, and the result was the parish’s thriving God’s Precious Preemies ministry.

When parishioner Dave Charnock was diagnosed with brain cancer five years ago, he called McCarthy’s office and asked to see her. After meeting with Dave, she was inspired by his desire to help others facing a cancer diagnosis; the fruit of that conversation continues today. From 20 to 30 individuals gather monthly to pray the St. Peregrine prayer for those affected by cancer.

“Barb was always devoted to the participation of laity in the church,” Father Gallagher said. “She was ahead of her time, and that’s the heart of her ministry and how she approached her work. She got laypeople involved.”

Both McCarthy and Father Gallagher describe the role of a pastoral associate as a generalist — someone who handles adult religious education, retreats, social ministry and outreach. She encouraged others to consider the call to lay ministry.

McCarthy brought unique gifts to her vocation in the church. Diane Becker, a longtime member of the RCIA team and current member of the pastoral council, said McCarthy has been so successful because she has such tremendous humility.

“She always puts Christ first,” Becker said, “and she is truly the light of Christ for everyone who meets her.”

Bonnie Connell, McCarthy’s assistant at St. Ferdinand for the past 21 years, said that McCarthy was consistently tireless and selfless. “Barb has a kind, gentle, loving spirit,” Connell said. “She’s genuine. You can see the face of Christ in Barb, in her actions and in her love for everyone.”

McCarthy’s advice for anyone considering this ministry is to have hope and to pursue that dream. “‘Hope’ is my favorite word,” she said. “I never gave up hope because God never gave up hope on me.”

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