Pastors getting to know their parish family up close

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

Josephite Father Oswald Pierre-Jules, St. David Church’s pastor in the Lower 9th Ward,  knew he was loved by his parishioners but felt something was missing. He wanted to know them better.

During Mass, he announced that he would make pastoral home visits, jokingly saying, “You don’t invite me; I am inviting myself!”

Beginning in April, he began traveling to parishioners’ homes, some as far as Gonzales and LaPlace, spending, on average, 1 1/2 hours a visit.

“He comes with such an open mind and heart,” said Albert Cousin, a former parishioner at St. Maurice Parish before it closed. Cousin was among the first home visits. “It’s all about sharing his life with you as much as he wants to know about you.”

Parishioner Priscilla Phillips reaped a gift of a small holy water font and a bottle of holy water from her home visit. 

“Priscilla … you are ‘Visit 92,’” Father Oswald said. “The purpose of the visit is to let you know I am here. You don’t see me on the altar or at the pastoral council meeting … I thank you for your (St. David) membership and for all your involvement in the parish. I value your membership as pastor. St. David is what it is today because of people like you.” 

“I think this is wonderful,” Phillips said of the visits. “I love the idea of the visits to each parishioner. To me, that is the biggest thing a pastor can do – to treat each parishioner as a person; to visit them and get to know them outside of the church. We each have a different persona. You are just not looking at them at church praying. … You are giving everybody the same attention. It makes a big difference when you visit people.”

Was not always Catholic

Phillips grew up Baptist as one of seven children in the Lutcher/Gramercy area, but yearned to be Catholic. She recalled often helping fellow classmates with catechism, which was taught in public school, because of her strong Bible knowledge as a Baptist. 

When she came to New Orleans looking for a better job, she became Catholic and found a home at St. David as a hub of the community. Now a retired nurse with three children (one deceased) and five grandchildren, Phillips is a 20-year choir member and head of its health ministry and Catholic Charities’ mentoring program Isaiah 43, among others.

Father Oswald asked her what she likes most about St. David.

“The people,” Phillips said. “If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t stay.” She added how, pre-Katrina, St. David used to be a community hub, holding many community events. It continues to hold a popular Fund Fest, this year, on Oct. 20 from noon to 6 p.m. with food, music, games and a money draw down.

Father Oswald agreed that his parishioners are special and experience a strong sense of family. He mentioned one parishioner who drives from Lutcher and picks up his grandchildren along the way to attend Mass.

“I am having a good time (at home visits),” he said. “I am learning so much from my parishioners,” as they have sharedº their life with him. 

Other parishes doing same

St. David isn’t the only parish that has conducted home visits.

When Father Ronald Calkins and Father Tim Hedrick arrived at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Metairie in 2014, they began similar home visits only two weeks after they came. They made a total of 42 visits through February 2015. 

“We were new to the parish, so it helped us get to know the parishioners, and helped the parishioners get to know us,” Father Tim Hedrick, newly appointed pastor, said. “It also helped us get to know what they wanted so we could serve them better.”

Meet and greet

Father Joe Palermo, new pastor since July at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Metairie, is doing similar meet-and-greet home visits. Since Sept. 4, he’s done six home visits; 15 more are scheduled. Others continue to schedule visits. On average, 18 to 20 people are reached each visit.

“This has been a great opportunity to meet the parishioners and learn their history and connection with St. Francis Parish,” Father Palermo said. “We have heard the things people love about the parish and the things that are on their wish list moving forward. There have been recommendations regarding liturgy, music, hospitality, the church’s sound system, youth ministry, facilities and the school.

He said the meetings have been “a good way to build community and a real help for us ‘newbie’ priests to understand how people feel about their parish and the quality of prayer and service in the parish. We look forward to the remaining visits and then to compiling all the info we have received and discerning and prioritizing a response in collaboration with our Parish Council.”

Father Oswald is pleased with the St. David visits and has noticed a difference in parishioner interaction and even seen three young adults return to the faith. He wrote a song that the parishioners now sing in Mass by heart called “God is Good” and also invites parishioners to mingle with each other prior to his homily. 

“There is more interaction with each other now,” Phillips aid. “You can’t help but smile and have a glad heart,” Phillips said. “You are going to have a lift in your spirit if you look at someone’s face and talk to them.”

“It’s positively made the parishioners feel like they are part of a family rather than just the church,” Cousin said. “That’s the feeling I get. It’s like going to your momma’s kitchen. They have now a connection with Father Oswald by him making those personal visits and reaching out.” 

“I feel I really got to know my parishioners,” he said. “You can see the difference at Mass. … In my 12 years, what I am doing now is the most fulfilling thing I have done as a priest. … When I am finished, I should be mayor of New Orleans!” 

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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