I was a good Catholic girl. I went to Catholic grade school, had a big Catholic wedding, and had my three children baptized into the Catholic faith. I didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, I gave my contribution every week, and I taught CCD on Wednesday nights. And almost every Sunday, I went to mass.
I was doing all the right things. So why did it feel like something was missing? How can I possibly feel lonely in a parish of 2,000 thousand people?
The answer came from a 70-something Episcopalian lady, who knocked on my door last spring.
As a reporter for the local newspaper, I sometimes have people stop by my house with advertisements. The Episcopalian lady had been by a few times with ads for her church. I had no idea what the Episcopal Church faith was about. In my upbringing, I learned that under the Christian heading there were Catholics, and there were non-Catholics. Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran… they were all lumped together into that second category.
One pretty spring day, there she was again, the Episcopalian lady. She always looked so cheerful and kind. What her religion is all about? I’ll have to look it up online sometime, or maybe check it out in the library. Or… how dumb would I seem if I just asked?
“What does Episcopalian mean?” I asked her that day. “What kind of church is it?”
“Well,” she said. “We’re not very different from you at all.” She explained how the Episcopalians were part of the Anglican Communion, which had been part of the Roman Catholic Church. She pointed out some of the differences, but also the many similarities.
“You’ll just have to come join us sometime,” she said with a smile. “Our Sunday service is at 9. Anyone is welcome to come and worship with us.”
The invitation left a warm spot on my heart all week. When Saturday came, my husband and children asked me what I wanted for Mother’s Day, which was the following day. “Don’t buy me anything this year,” I said. “I just want us all to try a new church that we’ve been invited to. That can be my gift.”
The following morning, we headed north out of our driveway instead of south. We found St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, just a few miles from home. The 123-year-old, small white building with its welcoming red front door stood out against the pretty blue sky.
As we entered the church, I could tell we were the only ones who didn’t know anybody. There were only about 40 people in the tiny church. As I wondered where we should sit, I wished for a moment we hadn’t come. We don’t belong here, I thought. But, wait…people are turning around with smiles, and with eyes lit up like they’re happy to see us!
”Good morning, we’re so glad you’re joining us today!” a woman at the door said, handing us a bulletin. Then there was Marion, the one who first invited me, waving from the front with a smile. “Glad you came!” she whispered. Others made room and found us a pew to sit in.
The bell rang, and Father Jim Conradt walked out to the altar. As the opening hymn began, his eyes roved fondly over the congregation, settled on us for a moment, and he smiled in welcome.
I was comforted by the familiarity of the mass. This was the same mass that had always been an important part of my life, culminating in the precious communion of our Lord’s Body and Blood.
Father Jim called all women up to the front. “You, too!” a few women beckoned to me. He handed us each a pink carnation, and gave us a special blessing for Mother’s Day. I was amazed at how these people, only one who knew my name, included me as one of them. I felt just as welcome at the altar as if I had attended St. Paul’s my whole life.
When Mass was over, we were invited to the basement. Coffee hour at St. Paul’s and the fellowship that takes place in that little basement is the glue that holds the parishioners together. Everyone had a welcoming word for us, and seemed eager to get to know us.
My heart was full as we drove back home. Is it possible to fall in love with a church? But I’m Catholic. Can I just switch? Is it as easy as that? But wait – my husband would never consider abandoning our Catholic faith.
“So, what did you think?” I asked him.
“Let’s switch,” he said.
So we did.
Now, a year later, I can’t imagine life without St. Paul’s. I have been elected to serve a three-year term on the Vestry, and I am chairperson of the Outreach Committee. All because of one person’s invitation.
In churches all across the country, there are committees full of good people concerned with increasing their congregation size. But we must always remember the true secret to parish growth – a simple invitation, a smile and an outstretched hand.