Father Pat Hoare greets parishioners after Mass at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Charlotte, N.C. Courtesy photo

Open Doors, Open Arms

Welcoming new members is key to a thriving parish

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Father Chris Donley did not want the first encounter that new parishioners have with St. Raphael Parish in Pittsburgh to be a box of donation envelopes waiting in their mailbox. The pastor sees the necessity of the official steps of registering new parishioners, such as completing paperwork and sending donation envelopes, but he sought to heed Pope Francis’ exhortation to hospitality and to find a way to make new parishioners feel welcome.

“The No. 1 mark of Christianity is hospitality and how you welcome a person,” Father Donley said. “Pope Francis has been a leader in encouraging priests to be leaders of hospitality.”

Father Donley partnered with a friend who owns a local marketing firm, as well as the marketing team at St. Raphael Parish, to develop a welcome packet to send to every new parishioner, welcoming them both to the parish and to the surrounding neighborhood. The packet includes welcome letters from Father Donley and the school principal; a membership card; a history of the parish and the neighborhood; a prayer card and medallion of St. Raphael; a St. Raphael Parish bumper sticker; and gift cards to local business.

Dave and Katrina Carr recently moved to the neighborhood and decided to join St. Raphael Parish after they were impressed both by the parish’s many ministries and by Father Donley’s homilies.

“The welcome packet we received after we registered was so generous and unexpected,” Katrina said.

Parishes across the country have implemented welcoming initiatives to make new parishioners feel like an integral part of their new parish communities, to help them form Christ-centered friendships with other members and, ultimately, to draw them into a closer personal relationship with Jesus Christ. These initiatives span welcoming packets, personal letters, home visits, parish welcoming committees and large-scale parish events.

‘Hungry for Relationships’

Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver has tripled in size over the last four years to encompass 11,000 households, a change that pastor Father Brian Larkin credits to a renewed focus on the quality of homilies and music at Mass. When new members register, they receive a welcoming phone call from a parish staff member and a personal email from Father Larkin. Their names also are listed in the parish bulletin. But Father Larkin’s overall goal for new members is to help them enter into Christ-centered friendships with fellow parishioners.

“What everyone wants is friendship,” Father Larkin said. “People are so hungry for relationships, and they want Catholic friends.”

To help new parishioners form such friendships, they are connected both to parish small groups, such as Bible studies and young adult groups, and large-scale events. The parish’s annual Gathering at the Grotto summer barbecue boasts 400 attendees, providing a space for new parishioners to meet fellow parishioners.

‘Get Them Connected’

St. Anthony of Padua Parish in The Woodlands, Texas, has created a Welcoming Society to promote overall hospitality within the parish and to help new members assimilate into parish life. The parish staff saw a need for such a group to serve both the 7,500 families in the parish and the constant stream of new parishioners joining, owing to the transient nature of the area. The Welcoming Society is composed of Paduan Ambassadors, a group of more than 200 parishioners who have completed a brief training and are dedicated to respecting the dignity of new and current parishioners.

“If we believe that every soul is precious to Jesus, then we should be honored when they walk on our grounds,” said Charles Giardina, coordinator for the Welcoming Society.

The Paduan Ambassadors help host Discover Padua, a quarterly program offered after a weekend Mass that gives information about the parish to new parishioners and to current parishioners who seek greater involvement. During the program, parish leaders present the parish vision and ministry information and distribute a welcoming packet. The ultimate goal of these initiatives is to bring people to the Mass so that they might draw closer to Jesus in the Eucharist.

“We know that if we can get people in and get them connected, then God will do the rest in the Mass,” said Kristine Marlow, children’s sacrament and formation coordinator.

‘The First Person They Meet’

A personal connection is an important part of welcoming new parishioners at St. Bede Parish in Holland, Pennsylvania. Msgr. John Marine ensures that either he or one of the parish’s two parochial vicars registers all new parishioners.

“The very first person they meet if they’re going to register is a priest,” Msgr. Marine said. “We want to be the very first person to welcome them.”

All new registrants receive a welcoming letter from Msgr. Marine, personally delivered to their home by a member of the Legion of Mary, who is glad to speak with them about life in the parish. The parish also holds a yearly welcome event in October and invites all parishioners who have registered during the last year.

The pastoral council regularly evaluates the parish’s welcoming procedures, and the parish continues to develop new ways of welcoming parishioners. Msgr. Marine has found these initiatives to work well in his parish. “They’re simple things, but they seem to be very effective,” he said.

Welcoming ‘Minds, Bodies and Souls’

St. Matthew Parish in Charlotte, North Carolina, notes a direct correlation between its welcoming initiatives and parishioners’ participation in daily Mass, spiritual events and the parish mission. With 34,000 parishioners, St. Matthew’s is the largest Catholic parish in the United States and sees its Welcoming Ministry as integral to keeping its parishioners — new and old — involved.

“Welcoming initiatives are a very key component to overall engagement of our parishioners’ minds, bodies and souls,” said Antoinette Usher, facilities and operations director. “They need to have a connection here.”

A large welcome sign greets everyone who enters the church at St. Matthew’s, and below it sits a welcome desk that a parishioner mans throughout the weekend Masses so he or she can welcome people, distribute registration cards and offer information about the parish. New parishioners receive a welcome packet and a personalized note from the pastor when they register. They also are invited to a quarterly Welcome Matt event that includes a luncheon after Sunday Mass, during which representatives from the more than 100 parish ministries speak to familiarize the new members about their apostolates.
Usher said that many of the women new to the parish recently have moved to Charlotte because of their job or their husband’s job transfer. The Welcoming Ministry offers a program for women called Moving On after Moving In, through which women of all ages and stages of life can form friendships with other women in their new parish. The women in this group study the Faith together and acclimate to a new city by touring Charlotte.

‘The Life of Jesus’

The Archdiocese of St. Louis encourages its 181 parishes to network with one another in order to ascertain the best practices in welcoming strategies, said Dave Baranowski, director of stewardship education for the archdiocese. The archdiocese includes strategies for welcoming new parishioners in monthly stewardship newsletters and discusses welcoming strategies at regional training meetings. It also works directly with parishes to help determine which welcoming strategies will be most effective within each parish’s demographic.

Father Donald Wester, pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters, Missouri, has found networking with other parishes about welcoming strategies to be very helpful. He passes the training he receives at the archdiocesan level on to his parish leaders to make the parish a community of welcome.

New members receive a handwritten note from the three parish priests encouraging them to find their new spiritual home in the parish, as well as a home visit from members of the parish’s welcoming committee. The parish also holds a Hospitality Sunday event once a month after two of the most attended Sunday Masses. These events are open to the whole parish, but letters are sent to new parishioners specifically inviting them to come. Members of the welcoming committee mingle with new parishioners at these events, connecting them with current parishioners. Father Wester sees a welcoming nature as integral to any follower of Jesus.

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“To me, welcoming was the life of Jesus,” Father Wester said. “He walked around his time and place and stood by the people around him. Welcoming is a matter of doing what he said we are supposed to do.”

THERESA SULLIVAN graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville and works for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.