The Domanoski family speaks about their love for the community of St. Mary, Mother of God Parish, Middletown, in a video on the parish’s home page. Screenshot photo
The Domanoski family speaks about their love for the community of St. Mary, Mother of God Parish, Middletown, in a video on the parish’s home page. Screenshot photo

When COVID-19 shut down the world in 2020, the staggering isolation suffered by so many prompted the repetition of the phrase “I can’t wait to get back to normal.” The Diocese’s every recovery effort since has been working toward that goal.

Little by little, signs of life are returning to parish grounds. The laughter of children playing on the church lawn after Mass as parents visit, members of the laity bringing up the bread and wine during the Presentation of the Gifts, choirs reappearing in gradually growing numbers, and the fellowship of sharing coffee and donuts in the parish hall – all these interactions point to the gift of community: our spiritual family, the Church. 

Particularly during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, parishes in the Diocese of Trenton have prioritized welcoming that family back to in-person experiences, hoping to encourage community reconnection with celebration.

WITH OPEN ARMS

“People are looking to return to pre-pandemic times,” said Father Jeff Kegley, pastor of St. Mary, Mother of God Parish, Middletown. “With the outreach we are doing this Advent and Christmas, people will know we are a loving parish community who cares for them and wants them to be part of our parish family.”

St. Mary’s has been blanketing its campus, surrounding neighborhoods and social media with information about its weekly programming throughout December. A 12-foot by 18-foot street banner spans Cherry Tree Farm Road near the church, announcing “Come Home for Christmas at St. Mary’s,” echoed by an oversized postcard mailed to all Middletown residents with a QR code leading to the landing page of the parish’s upcoming events, as well as doorhangers with the same code parishioners were asked to hang on neighbors’ doors. Emails and robocalls to parishioners are already underway.

In Tabernacle, Holy Eucharist Parish has also been spreading the word of welcome on its website, as well as using business signs and social media.

“And most importantly, the ‘personal invite’ is so important,” said Jessica Garrett, Holy Eucharist’s communications coordinator. “[It] can go a long way when it comes from a family member or friend. We support this with simple invite graphics on our webpage they can text or email [and] a printout as well for Christmas cards.”

Father Kegley agreed. “This year there is a great need to ‘reach out’ to those who have not returned to church since the pandemic, and to invite all our neighbors to join our parish community in celebrating the birth of our Savior,” he said.

On the Holy Eucharist website – holyeucharist.org – there are multiple opportunities for parishioners to sign up to assist with Advent and Christmas preparations, including volunteering at Mass, greeting guests at the church doors, decorating for events and more.

“Many people will walk through our doors on Christmas Eve and Christmas. Some of those people will be coming to Church for the first time or for the first time in a long time,” the website announces. “We want to be ready for them. We want to make their experience here at church the Best. Experience. Ever. We’re inviting you to help us make this experience great for them!”

For the past few months, the home page of St. Mary’s – stmarychurchnj.org – has been hosting “I Love St. Mary’s” videos featuring young families describing their experience.

“At St. Mary’s we love hearing children at Mass, even when they are crying,” Father Kegley encouraged. “This is a sign of a Church that is alive and growing. However, little ones are a handful and parents sometimes get embarrassed or uncomfortable when their children may act up. We want all our young families to know ‘that this is their Father’s House, and their children are welcome.’”

BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER

December calendars at St. Mary and Holy Eucharist are rapidly filling with highly anticipated events to which the parish and wider community are all welcome. Included in those events are both in-person and virtual opportunities to participate.

“We continue to look for and offer opportunities that meet people at their comfort level,” Garrett explained. “We aim to keep offering that connection as best as possible and show a friendly face. It’s important to show and remind them of our welcoming community and that we miss them.”

Events like Holy Eucharist’s Living Nativity on Dec. 10 from 6 – 9 p.m. – a retelling of the Christmas story in a socially distanced drive-through experience; the parish’s food and gift card collections for St. Vincent de Paul and Christmas gift collection for the residents of New Lisbon – a nearby residential community of adults with special needs – allow for all to participate comfortably.

“Last year, Christmas Eve was fully online to accommodate our high numbers, but this year we are bringing back tradition with our in-house Masses and our [Christmas Eve] children’s program, ‘Jingle Jam.’” Holy Eucharist will also provide access to a few online Masses for those who still aren’t comfortable coming in person on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 

Throughout December St. Mary Parish will host its first annual Outdoor Christmas Market with craft and food vendors; Lessons and Carols; Blessing of the Bambellini (Baby Jesus) from home Nativity scenes, and a parish tree lighting and live Nativity. Students in St. Mary School also entered a contest to create a Christmas Card that will be mailed to the parishioners and school families, while parish religious education students are in the process of food drives for “The Barn” – a parish-affiliated organization serving the poorest of the poor.

For anyone who doesn’t have a place to go for a celebratory meal, St. Mary’s plans a Christmas dinner organized by the parish’s hospitality committee. “They organize everything, from soup to nuts,” Father Kegley noted. “Most of the food comes from our parishioners.”

IMPORTANCE OF RECONNECTION

The need for human connection in the Church family has become even more evident after over a year and a half of social disruption. While parishes continue to follow all pandemic protocols set forth by the Diocese, they have worked in earnest to provide opportunities to return to the gift of community safely. Many churches the size of St. Mary’s, which seats 1,200, can still easily allow space between family groups.

“At St. Mary’s, community is essential for us to live out the mission that was given to us by Jesus,” Father Kegley emphasized. “We are not just brothers and sisters ‘in name only’ but ‘in reality.’ We have all been baptized into Christ Jesus.  It is in community and through community that we participate in the mission that Jesus has given to his Church.”

He noted that many young families with babies have been returning to St. Mary’s – something that brings a joy even beyond the Christmas season.

“The beautiful thing is the wonderful reaction of our older parishioners – their faces light up,” he said. “The young families bring them hope.”

In Holy Eucharist Parish, “The return of parishioners, and even new faces, is happening slowly but surely,” Garrett said. “A welcoming experience can truly make a difference in the lives of those who are coming to the Church for the first time in a long time or the first time ever. We want any weekend experience to be excellent and [for us to be] prepared for those who walk in our doors.

“We know that the pandemic still has a lot of people concerned about big gatherings,” she continued, “but we also know that while people’s faith is important, life can distract us so easily from this importance – so, reminding them that we’re here, that the Church is ready for them, remains our focus.”