Gina Shorten believes that for the eight generations of Catholics who have been sustaining Immaculate Conception parish in Macon — often sacrificially in terms of their time, money and prayers — the investment has yielded incalculable dividends in this world and the next.
“We need to maintain that investment,” said Mrs. Shorten, chairwoman of the Immaculate Conception parish council. “There are lot of Catholics here who need that support.”
With a combined membership of about 250 registered families, Immaculate Conception and the neighboring Mission of the Sacred Heart in Bevier are among the 110 Catholic parishes and missions in the Jefferson City diocese.
One of Immaculate Conception’s strongest evangelization tools is its school.
One of 37 Catholic grade schools in the diocese, I.C. School has 71 students in grades kindergarten through 8.
“The students, when they go out into the community, you can tell, they bring something very positive with them,” said Mrs. Shorten. “They bring a great attitude and a willingness to serve.”
Principal Teresa Thrasher said the school is like a family.
“Everyone pitches in to help,” she said. “Our kids know how to serve.”
Keeping the school vibrant and effective is one of many ways the parish benefits from the diocesan resources and staff of the Chancery Office, with support from the Catholic Stewardship Appeal (CSA).
“There’s no way we could do this without the help of the diocese,” said Mrs. Thrasher.
Every Roman Catholic parish in the world is part of a diocese, eparchy or ordinariate.
lead and serve the people, assisted by his diocesan staff, who help the parishes carry-out the ministries of the Church.
“We are not an island here. We are part of something much bigger, much greater,” said Father Benjamin Nwosu, pastor of Immaculate Conception and Sacred Heart.
“Christ’s hands and feet”
I.C. School helps build up the Body of Christ by forming young people into Christian adults who are invested in serving their community.
“Our kids learn from very early on how to be servants, how to minister to each other,” said Mrs. Thrasher. “I believe this is our best hope for helping the next generation to become Christ’s hands and feet here on earth.”
The school relies heavily on volunteers from students’ families and the rest of the parish.
All new parish and school employees and volunteers must be certified through the “VIRTUS — Protecting God’s Children” program.
Through VIRTUS training sessions offered by Mike Berendzen — Associate to the Chancellor, and safe-environment coordinator for the diocese — and a network of facilitators, adults learn the five steps they can take to create a safe environment for children.
They also learn how to help protect them from exploitation, and how to recognize and report signs of grooming and abuse.
More than 900 people throughout the diocese have attended 44 of these classes since July 1.
“VIRTUS training is very helpful,” said Mrs. Thrasher. “They offer many sessions, so that it is convenient for our parishes.”
I.C. School also receives age-appropriate lesson plans to help children understand boundaries and avoid being victimized by adults.
Other help from diocesan personnel abounds: the Catholic School Office helps Mrs. Thrasher stay on top of important documents and reports that need to be filed.
The School Office also provides ongoing professional development and spiritual enrichment opportunities for Catholic school administrators and teachers.
Sister Elizabeth Youngs SCL, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools, and Sister Julie Brandt SSND, associate school superintendent, work with schools on maintaining accreditation, building curriculum, hiring educators, and carrying-out processes for self-study and continuous improvement.
They oversee the religious-education certification for all Catholic school teachers, through My Catholic Faith Formation’s online catechist certification program.
Service and formation at I.C. continue into adulthood.
“The people here are just amazing,” said Deacon Bruce Mobley, one of the permanent deacons who assist the pastor in Macon and Bevier. “Sometimes, you don’t even notice all the things people are doing in the background.”
A member of the diocese’s Youth Advisory Council and director of Mid-America Teens Encounter Christ (TEC), Deacon Mobley helps facilitate youth ministry at I.C. parish and prepare couples for marriage.
“We get lots of help from the diocese,” he said.
With guidance from the diocesan Office of Youth Ministry and Faith Formation, Deacon Mobley helped select new learning materials for second-graders preparing for the sacrament of reconciliation and their First Holy Communion.
“John DeLaporte is a real treasure for us,” said Deacon Mobley of the office’s coordinator. “He is top-notch.”
For marriage-prep, the diocese provides access to the FOCCUS Catholic pre-marriage inventory.
Designed to be fun and helpful, FOCCUS helps the future husband and wife enter into important discussions about life beyond the wedding.
Some couples also need the services of the diocesan Matrimonial Tribunal before they can get married.
The Tribunal helps people through the process of seeking a declaration of nullity from the Church regarding a failed attempt at marriage.
If it can be determinedthrough a thorough investigation under Church law that something prevented a couple from being able to enter into sacramental marriage, an annulment is granted.
The man and woman are then free to marry in the Church.
Deacon Mobley noted that I.C. parish has volunteer advocates, certified through the Tribunal, who help couples navigate the annulment process.
Catholic for life
Lisa and Tyler May moved to Macon shortly after getting married in 2013.
“I think it’s a perfect little hometown parish, where it seems like everyone knows everybody and people are willing to give you the shirt off their back if you ask for it,” said Mrs. May.
Not long after arriving, she went on a Cursillo weekend and asked God to give her guidance on how best to get involved in her new parish.
After Mass the following Sunday, Father David Veit, who was pastor at Macon and Bevier at that time, asked her to serve as volunteer youth-ministry coordinator.
“I still don’t feel quite qualified for it, but I guess God sees things differently,” she said.
The Mays lead the high-school youth group, which meets weekly, and also help 19 high school juniors and seniors prepare for the sacrament of confirmation.
With both groups, the Mays focus on helping young people prepare to keep practicing their faith and growing in their relationship with Christ when they’re out on their own.
The Mays invite college students from the parish to talk to the teens about getting involved in Catholic campus ministry and carrying their commitment to Christ into adulthood.
“We want them to know how to be part of the Church,” said Mrs. May.
She stays in touch with Mr. DeLaporte, who provides resources and networking opportunities to youth ministers throughout the diocese.
“All the difference”
In Macon, Deacon Lloyd Collins heads up the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), through which people learn about being Catholic and may eventually enter full communion with the Church.
Members of the parish’s RCIA team have attended diocesan enrichment workshops, which helps them do a better job of accompanying people on the journey to the sacraments.
Deacon Collins said one of the highlights for anyone in the RCIA is traveling to the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City on the First Sunday of Lent for the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.
At that event, sponsored by the diocese each year, people embarking on the last weeks of preparation for the Easter sacraments, along with their families and sponsors or godparents, receive encouragement and assurance of prayers from the bishop and the entire local Church.
“Every last one of them says it was a really great experience, seeing all the people from all over the diocese who are exploring the Catholic Church as they are,” said Deacon Collins.
Before being ordained to the diaconate, Deacon Collins and Deacon Mobley undertook a year of formal discernment and three years of study and formation with their wives.
The diocesan Diaconate Office provides that formation, which includes structured coursework and exposure to many forms of ministry.
“I think all of that preparation is worth it, because the whole parish benefits from it,” said Deacon Mobley.
God never runs out of people who need to be listened to and helped, he said.
“Maybe there’s just one person you meet who you can make all the difference in the world to,” said Deacon Mobley.
More time to minister
Fr. Nwosu said that as pastor of a parish with a school, he often looks to the people in the Catholic School Office for guidance.
He also relies on the services of Connie Schepers and Terry Vignola in the Matrimonial Tribunal in submitting the required paperwork for couples to get married.
Deacon Joseph Braddock, chief financial officer for the diocese, and his staff in the Finance Office are also helpful.
“When we have questions about finances, they are very quick to respond and to help us out,” said Fr. Nwosu.
Assistance with such administrative functions frees him up for more one-on-one ministry and the sacraments.
That’s what he loves the most.
“It helps a lot to know as a pastor that you are ministering to people who love Jesus, who love Christ, who love their faith, who love their Catholic Church,” he said.
A time to sow
Parishioner Joe Thomas was born and raised in Macon. His grandparents were strong, devout Catholics.
He was baptized but did not grow up in the faith. He and his wife entered into marriage 18 years ago.
When they decided to send their daughter to Immaculate Conception School, Mrs. Thomas volunteered to serve on the school advisory board.
Mr. Thomas started coming to Mass and getting active in the parish.
“Now, there are so many blessings, I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” he said.
Three years ago, Fr. Veit asked him to head up the Parish School of Religion (PSR).
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, Angela Niemeyer and Mindy Schneider teach religious education to children of the parish who are not enrolled in I.C. School.
“It’s been a lot of fun!” said Mr. Thomas.
The students meet every Sunday morning during the school year. It usually includes a short lecture, a learning-based game, a skit, some small-group faith-sharing and discussion time, an art project, a group discussion and a shared prayer.
“One thing we’re trying to do throughout the year is give them more ‘tools for the toolbox’ — things in the Catholic tradition that will help them with life,” he said.
“We plant the seeds and trust God to do the rest,” he added.
Mrs. Shorten believes the outlook for the parish is bright, but more people need to hear God’s call to Priesthood and religious life.
There’s plenty of help for that from the diocese, with Fathers Christopher Aubuchon and Joshua Duncan, director and associate director of the Vocation Office, offering guidance to people in the early phases of priestly and religious discernment.
“I think we’re going to be okay,” said Mrs. Shorten. “One way or another, God is going to keep taking care of us.”