Volunteers from Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, participate in the drive-through Living Nativity held Dec. 16 on the parish grounds. Courtesy photo
Volunteers from Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, participate in the drive-through Living Nativity held Dec. 16 on the parish grounds. Courtesy photo
Parishes in the Diocese made an extra effort to involve and welcome families to their Christmas preparation events and outreach this Advent season – and they responded enthusiastically.

“I can’t even begin to express the level of joy,” said Jeff Siedlecki, coordinator of youth ministry in Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, who helped direct a drive-through Living Nativity Dec. 16 on the parish grounds for the third year.

“It was an absolute blessing to engage that many people from the community,” he said of the nearly 350 packed vehicles that drove through the series of stations.

In St. David the King Parish, Princeton Junction, families were invited to a Dec. 11 performance of “The 3 ½ Stories of Christmas” by Scripture actor Frank Runyeon of Runyeon Productions. The event included participation from parents, children and youth group members alike, and was followed by an afternoon Mass celebrated by Father Jason Parzynski, diocesan vocations director.

“It really helped the families understand the importance of … the real Christmas story,” reflected Nanci Bachman, parish director of lifelong faith formation. “At the end [Runyeon] took all the [children portraying angels] in a circle dancing around, with a mom playing Mary and one of the dads as Joseph … every family was laughing and having a great time. And Father Jason really helped tie it all together in his homily.”

Meanwhile in St. Denis Parish, Manasquan, a collaboration with other churches of the area and the Manasquan Police department allowed for a hugely successful toy drive Dec. 10 that garnered donations from the wider local community, and spread the Christmas spirit with music, activities and treats.

Bringing Story to Life

Siedlecki noted that Holy Eucharist’s Living Nativity, born during the pandemic to bring families to church safely, was embraced even more this year. “The most amazing part was the participation rate of volunteers for time and donations – it was unbelievable,” he said.

Owners of a nearby alpaca farm happily lent their animals and cages free of charge. “All the handlers we spoke with brought in their pets, so they were used to the commotion, and they loved the attention,” Siedlecki said. “We had alpacas, chickens, goats, donkeys, ponies … apart from the state police presence, everything [for the event] was donated.”

Youth ministry and Confirmation candidates played signature Nativity roles, while 20 Knights of Columbus volunteers kept the traffic moving smoothly, all braving nearly four hours in the cold and damp as upwards of 1,000 people came to view the scenes. As cars waited in line, passengers were given a flyer with a QR code leading to a parish background, story of the Nativity and audio recordings by the youth corresponding to each scene.

The youth ministry was prepped to look at the Living Nativity as “our opportunity to evangelize, and a gift to bring our enthusiasm and energy to the community,” Siedlecki continued. “It was amazing to see trucks and minivans full of kids coming through!”

Faith and Understanding

Now in its second year, the presentation in St. David the King Parish was also part of an effort inspired by the pandemic, as the parish faith formation team looked to find ways for families to reconnect to their faith throughout the year.

“We incorporate family events into our religious education program,” Bachman explained. “We offer several programs a year, and families are invited to attend five of them … then we have Mass afterwards. It reinforces what is learned in the classroom.” She noted that parish pastor, Father Timothy Capewell, encouraged the programs as a means to bring families back to church together.

“We want to bring families together around critical issues like food insecurity and Catholic social teachings,” she said, “[addressing] how to help live out our faith and what that means in our community today.”

In November the parish hosted a family program with the 1994 animated film “The Polar Express,” based on the famous 1985 children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, with the youth group helping coordinate activities. Additionally during December, the religious education students were given an Angel coin with the words “All things are possible with Christ.”

“It’s a reminder that with faith they can do anything,” Bachman explained.

Youth ministry members serve as cantors and readers for the Masses. “Seeing young people serving in the Church – it says, ‘They value me as a young person,’” she continued. “The Confirmation students loved doing the readings and Prayers of the Faithful.”

Bachman acknowledged that the family programs have been developed by a team of dedicated ministry members, who “work collaboratively with the youth and the staff – and we pray beforehand, so that it’s not just our ideas but the Holy Spirit who is giving us inspiration.”

Making Spirits Bright

Inspired by the desire of the Manasquan Police Department to work with the Manasquan Ministerium (community of Manasquan churches), and initiated by a parishioner, Patrolman John Ringo, who approached Father Lago, the four-hour toy drive for toddlers through teens at St. Denis brought in an extraordinary number of donations.

“It was an overwhelming success,” said Father Lago, who noted that combined with donations collected by police at local public schools and police headquarters, the drive filled nearly nine vans total for DCPP [Division of Child Protection and Permanency] and The Angel Program of NJ, which helps military families.

A meeting between Father Lago with area ministers, patrolmen and representatives from DCPP helped determine logistics and what was needed. The resulting event included a Manasquan Policemen’s Benevolent Association trailer serving hot beverages and Christmas cookies, Christmas music playing on loudspeakers, and a visit from Jolly Old St. Nick himself.

The impetus to have more collaboration between law enforcement and houses of worship comes from the “Faith and Blue” initiative – a national movement that has been readily embraced by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, Father Lago noted. “As far as I am aware, we are the only area that has continued this initiative past the ‘Faith and Blue Weekend’ held annually in our county,” he said.

Charities supported by the toy drive were thrilled with the outcome, which resulted in a greater number of donations than in the past.

“Social workers from DCPP have shared many stories about the impact the toy drive has had,” Father Lago continued, “not only for the children, but also those who care for the children, whose means are limited, as well as the impact it has had on the social workers, for the sheer support of the overwhelming number of toys contributed. One quote [I heard]: ‘All needs are being met.’”

In Our Midst

In Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, West Trenton, parishioners demonstrated their Christmas spirit with an ongoing project throughout the Advent season, culminating in the revelation of a display designed by their pastor, Father Ariel Robles.

Wooden “bricks” pre-cut by parishioner Rocco Zangrilli were made available after Advent Masses for anyone to select and write on them a good deed, prayers offerings, sacrifices and good works. The bricks were collected, and Zangrelli – a mason by trade – assisted Father Robles in assembling them into a large model of the church building, and displayed it behind the Nativity scene in the sanctuary.

“The model was the same color and design of the church. He is so creative and artistic; he comes up with these beautiful projects for the parish,” said Debbie Smith, parish secretary, of Father Robles’ idea. “He talked about it in his Christmas Eve homily – how the church is how Christ is brought into our midst, and in Communion at the altar, Christ is born.”

The model was also a nod to the church’s 75th anniversary, Smith noted. “People have been taking pictures and saying they hoped it wouldn’t be taken down soon,” she said. “Everybody was moved by it and loved participating in it. It was a real spiritual work.”