Despite unforeseen challenges of merging multiple parishes during a pandemic, one determined pastor has found ways to bring God’s people together while keeping them safe.
St. Thomas the Apostle became a new parish on July 1. Since then, Father Dan Sweeney has led a Feast Day Mass, organized volunteers to renovate a parish building, held outdoor school fundraising celebrations, restarted the parish fish fry, conducted a well-attended Vacation Bible School, and has resumed faith formation in-person and remotely.
Nine churches are part of the new faith community in Munhall, West Mifflin, Whitaker, Duquesne and Homestead. Across the diocese, 29 groupings have merged since last year to form new parishes.
Parishioners who feel comfortable venturing out after months at home are wearing masks, social distancing and using lots of available hand sanitizer.
“We’re taking every precaution and the people are responding,” Father Sweeney said. “For the most part they are very happy. It’s about belief in God.”
Babette Butler, who grew up at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Munhall, has attended many of the events. The first was the parish Feast Day Mass on July 3,which included welcoming new converts, followed by a cookout with live music and fireworks.
During the months of lockdown, “I missed receiving communion,” she said. “It’s also been nice to get out of the house and see people at the different churches.”
Parish teens normally fix up homes in Appalachia every July. This summer they stayed home at “Camp Corona,” enlarging the St. Agnes social hall and installing a new roof.
The annual parish festival at St. Therese was replaced by a Summer Celebration, with food booths spaced apart to pass an inspection by the county health department. A Labor Day Celebration took place in St. Agnes’ parking lot. Friday Fish Frys are back at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church, preceded by the Divine Mercy Chaplet. An Apple Festival was held September 20 at St. Therese, complete with hayrides, pumpkin painting and a meatloaf dinner.
“We do eat well!” said St. Therese principal Jon Cuniak, who is grateful for the events that have helped make up income lost due to cancellations. “Father Dan loves to bring people together. Things are moving.”
This week parishioners are heading to Lancaster, PA via motorcoach (seats socially distanced) to see the stage production Queen Esther. A trip is planned in late November to the Opryland Resort in Nashville, TN.
St. Thomas the Apostle Parish also continues to operate a food bank, a bereavement ministry, and to visit the homebound, according to pastoral associate Lori Ellis. A dozen weekend Masses are celebrated at eight churches. Faith formation is held at St. Rita and St. Therese, with options for home schooling as well.
Despite the pandemic, Butler feels a sense of growing unity.
“New people are volunteering,” she said. “It’s nice to meet a lot of them who I didn’t know. The church family has been a big part of my life.”