Parish programs thriving online

Zoom was no match for the volume of people who wanted to virtually attend Robert Ellsberg’s presentation on his friendship with Dorothy Day. Hosted by Saint Jude Parish as part of its “Sharing the Light” speaker series, attendees exceeded the 100-person limit on the Zoom meeting by so many that even pastor Father Joe Mele was not able to enter the virtual room.

Parishes turned to online programming to find a port in the storm amid the darkest days of the pandemic, but many also discovered unexpected blessings in technology and will continue to use it.

Saint Jude Parish in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside and Morningside neighborhoods saw steady growth each time a virtual event was held, with attendance highest for the presentation by Ellsberg, son of Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers.

It was convenient to watch from home and easier to attract high-caliber speakers when no travel was involved, according to Mary Lou McLaughlin, chair of the series.

“Virtual programming is working for us,” McLaughlin said.

The parish’s online programming is also making its in-person community more robust. McLaughlin sees faces from the speaker series in the pews on Sundays. Mass attendance is higher now than before the pandemic hit.

On December 2, the Saint Jude “Sharing the Light” series will host Manfred Honeck, director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, who will discuss his work and his spirituality. This time, the parish is making sure to have a Zoom link that accommodates up to 300 attendees, McLaughlin noted with a chuckle.

At Christ Our Savior Parish on Pittsburgh’s North Side, Father Larry DiNardo has taught a Bible study during Advent and Lent. In 2020, he switched to Zoom during the pandemic.

“It was fascinating that the number started to swell to 70-80 people online,” he said.

The Zoom meetings made it possible for the Bible study to reach new demographics. Older people who do not drive at night and young people juggling hectic work schedules have been able attend.

Father DiNardo will offer both an in-person and virtual option for his study on the journeys of Saint Paul that begins in November. The biggest benefit of online programming is that it reaches people who would not have been otherwise able to attend, he said.

Saint John Neumann Parish in Franklin Park has offered seven different evangelization programs virtually over the past year and a half that include a video presentation and small group discussions. They will continue to offer a virtual option going forward.

Gary Fritsch, director of evangelization, said people have appreciated these programs for reasons beyond COVID safety.

Young parents can participate without having to leave home and find a babysitter. People who travel often for work have joined the audio portion of the presentations from the road via their phones. Fritsch also has seen virtual presentations benefit elderly people who do not like to drive at night.

More than 170 people attended the evangelization programs that the parish hosted during the pandemic. Former members of the parish who have moved away also logged on.

“These are people who would never get any of that content otherwise. The virtual meetings help to build community,” Fritsch said.