Father Thomas Dentici and Mercy Sister Phyllis Riddle stand on the grounds of the future St. Robert Bellarmine Parish family center in the early 1970s. Courtesy photo

Father Thomas Dentici and Mercy Sister Phyllis Riddle stand on the grounds of the future St. Robert Bellarmine Parish family center in the early 1970s. Courtesy photo

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

Whether they’re longtime parishioners, recently arrived faithful or staff, those connected to the newly-elevated St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral agree that service and community lie at its heart.

Just ask Mercy Sister Rosemary Jeffries, who served the parish for six years, arriving in 1972 to help establish many of the ministries that flourish today.

“It’s a real testament to the folks who started the parish,” Sister Rosemary said of the Co-Cathedral’s designation. “I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to be there.” 

Sister Rosemary was one of four Mercy Sisters looking to get involved in parish ministry in the early 1970s, which she says, was a new concept at the time. The sisters took up residence at the invitation of Father Thomas Dentici, the founding pastor.

The small parish of 564 families welcomed the sisters as they presided over initiatives, including religious education programs, Sacramental preparation, adult education and youth ministry.

At the time, the parish buildings simply consisted of the rectory and convent, so the majority of community meetings took place in the sisters’ residence.

“It was a hopping little place on Schanck Road,” Sister Rosemary said of the site where 90 percent of the community meetings occurred. “Many a night, the dining room, living room and chapel” were all occupied with those planning parish activities and programs.

In 1975, the new parish family center and chapel opened, but Sister Rosemary remembers those years as some of the happiest in her life.

“It was a great experience of parish community,” said Sister Rosemary, a former president of Georgian Court University, Lakewood. “Everyone had a role in that family. There was very palpable family spirit.”

A History of Helping

Like Sister Rosemary, founding parishioner Dorothy Avallone, a reader who attends daily Mass, treasures memories of when the parish was founded by Bishop George W. Ahr in 1971.

So bare bones was the operation at first that Avallone, with a group of Freehold Township women, decided to give a shower to outfit the four priests in residence at the new rectory with household items.

The occasion, she said, inspired Father Dentici to say time and again, “If you need something, all you have to do is call, and someone will help.”

That kind of response never diminished over the decades, said Avallone, who sees the spirit of collaboration as an important factor in St. Robert Bellarmine Parish receiving the honor of becoming Co-Cathedral.

To her, as to so many in the parish community, it signals “that we can do more, give more, help more. We already have had diocesan meetings and the Chrism Mass here,” she said, adding that the fact that there is more to come “is very exciting to me as a Catholic.”

Like Avallone, parishioners John Toutounchi and Fernando Machado say the change in status affirms the hard work the parishioners have done to make their church welcoming to all.

Toutounchi, a parishioner for 31 years who currently serves as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, usher and part of the Faith in Our Future Committee, said that he invites people who have left the Church to attend Mass because he hopes they will feel welcome in St. Robert Bellarmine Parish. He also looks forward to having “more visitors who will be called family” at the Co-Cathedral.

Machado and his wife, Paula, have been active parishioners for about 15 years. Recently, they joined the Pre-Cana ministry at the invitation of Father Edward H. Jawidzik, parochial vicar.

“To have the parish elevated means a lot,” Machado said. “My first thought is that it is humbling that the [Bishop] will have his co-residence in our church – not to live in but to teach in.”

Being Co-Cathedral, he said, “comes with great responsibility and blessing ... and we need to be stewards of something very precious.”

Marge Golden, parish coordinator of outreach ministries, and her husband, John, joined the parish 21 years ago along with their sons, Billy, now 31, Thomas, 28, and John Patrick, 26.

“It’s the most dynamic parish I’ve ever belonged to,” said Golden.

From helping to support the Open Door Ecumenical Food Pantry to the after-school program for families in need and the overnight program for the homeless, there are many ways to be of service, she said.

Staying on Target

Looking forward, parish staff say they will strive to find a good balance between taking care of parishioners and the activities of the Co-Cathedral.

“We will continue to make the parishioners a priority, listening to their needs as we [also] work with the Diocese,” said Eileen Kane, parish business manager.

“We’ll be offering hands-on support when events are held,” she said, adding that a priority will be communicating with the parish family. “We will keep things posted so that families can take advantage of them.”

She also said there will be a strong focus on staying organized, a priority set by Msgr. Sam A. Sirianni, rector of the Co-Cathedral.

“We’ll be juggling a lot, coordinating with ministries and the diocesan Office of Worship,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are running in sync, welcoming and showing our love for the people of the Diocese.”

Regarding the possible new scope of staff duties, Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry, parish pastoral assistant, said, “Everyone is looking forward to the challenges of helping to instill a greater awareness of God’s presence on a diocesan-wide level.”

Schlameuss-Perry, who earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Georgian Court University, Lakewood, and a master’s in pastoral ministry from Boston College, has experience in helping to prepare for worship in parishes.

She said she expects the planning that will accompany the Co-Cathedral is likely to produce a “more intentional” approach to parish programming, which she sees as a plus.

“We are working with the diocesan [Department of Evangelization and Family Life] to try to make our parish programs more accessible to families as we minister to different groups within the Diocese,” she said.