Youth ministry members Mara Anderson, left, and Brielle Blakely paint the church pillars. Photos courtesy of St. Gregory the Great Parish
Youth ministry members Mara Anderson, left, and Brielle Blakely paint the church pillars. Photos courtesy of St. Gregory the Great Parish
St. Gregory the Great Parish’s youth ministry couldn’t travel to Appalachia this year for their annual, weeklong service mission because of the coronavirus.

But the pandemic didn’t keep the crew of 24 determined teens from using a lot of elbow grease to spruce up some landscape in need of improvement – their own Hamilton Square parish campus.

“I thought [helping the parish] was a good supplement,” said Justin Parisi, 16, a junior in Robbinsville High School. “I always try to help out around the house when I can, and I like to help my dad with his landscaping projects.”

With the help of 15 adult volunteers, the crew put 500 hours into a host of outdoor projects during their five-day mission at the end of July, including painting and repairing the four columns in front of the church, scraping paint off the exterior doors of the church/chapel, constructing a new fence around the campus dumpster and power washing. A lot of effort also went into improving the grounds by edging, weeding and pruning trees, mulching the preschool play area, preparing a new pollinator garden and installing an aluminum screen around the lower fence in the community garden to keep out rabbits.

“I felt it [the mission] would help me later when I have my own house,” said Brianne Wilbert, 16, who helped caulk, scrape and paint the pillars. She added that it gave her joy to see the looks on parishioners faces when they saw the pillars clean for the first time in years.

“Some people walked by and said, ‘Thank you guys so much for taking the time.’ I felt good about doing this,” said Wilbert, a Steinert High School junior.

Mission Spirit

For decades, the youth ministry has been traveling to Kingwood, W. Va., where they devote their energy to housing improvements. The area is a persistent flood zone, said Rich Pieslak, who has been coordinating the project for more than 20 years. 

With Catholic Charities on board, the mission grew, and by last year, there were 700 volunteers from all over New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, Pieslak said. “We’ve been doing this faithfully for 36 years, and this year, everyone was trying to make it happen.”

Pastor Father Michael Hall, who grew up in the parish and started taking part in the mission 22 years ago as a youth, helped with planning this year’s “mini-trip” at the parish, which included making sure all projects were outdoors, the liberal use of hand sanitizers and requiring participants to wear masks and gloves.

A Good Move

Overall, volunteers said, relocating the mission gave both parishioners and participants a lift, and offered the same elements that would have been present on a trip to West Virginia – balancing hard work with fellowship and faith.

“The kids were very enthused. They wanted to get their hands dirty. We had a good rapport,” said Chet Siwczak, one of the adult volunteers.

Added Dwight Torlay, head sacristan at the parish,  “The kids were wonderful … We accomplished a lot in one week. They were very efficient.”