“Driven by the missionary zeal of St. Thérèse, the Lord anoints us to proclaim to the poor and broken the Good News that Jesus calls us to abundant life in Him.”

St. Thérèse Parish Mission Statement

In the spirit of their patroness, the parish community of St. Thérèse Little Flower Catholic Church in South Bend came together through the Next Generation Parish (NGP) accompaniment. Together, they transformed their community through humble service, heartfelt actions, and of course, great love.

While NGP focuses on walking with pastors through the four phases, a key factor in success is the involvement of strong lay leaders. One such leader is Lenny Strezelecki, who’s been a parishioner at St. Thérèse since 1991. Lenny embraced the opportunity to serve his parish in a leadership role, and NGP helped him further develop his already outstanding leadership abilities.

With Fr. Terry Coonan at the helm, the lay leadership team dove right into the process, reviewing DMI data, crafting a new mission statement and core values, and putting a fine point on the goals they wanted to achieve. But, in the midst of this work, it was announced that Fr. Terry would be moving to a different parish, and Fr. Julius Okojie would be taking his place.

Fr. Julius Okojie and Fr. Terry Coonan

Under different circumstances, a pastor transition could have meant that all the hard work would have either slowed down or stopped completely. But thanks to Next Generation Parish and lay leaders like Lenny who were able to shepherd the process, Fr. Julius was able to thrive without hardly missing a step. “Fr. Julius spent a lot of time learning and getting involved in the process,” Lenny said, "And while he might have been overwhelmed, he took it on.”

The initial Disciple Maker Index (DMI) data helped provide a solid foundation and starting point for St. Thérèse. They found that 91% of DMI respondents would recommend St. Thérèse to a friend, and that 87% of parishioners felt welcomed. Some opportunities for the parish included helping parishioners feel comfortable talking about their faith with others, hosting retreats and workshops to help deepen faith, and doing a better job of following up with interested volunteers.

One area that needed improvement and that the parish decided to focus on was to increase the number of people going to confession. The team felt that regularly attending confession quarterly would deepen discipleship. Some ways they helped parishioners see the value of attending confession included witness talks during Mass that expressed the positive effects of Reconciliation on their lives. During the Welcome Men’s retreats, part of the weekend is helping men prepare for confession and then attend. Thanks to their hard work, they were able to raise the number of people taking part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation quarterly from 24% to 47%!

Fr. Julius stepped up and embraced the goal wholeheartedly by speaking about Reconciliation frequently in his homilies and staying after the end of posted hours to ensure everyone attending has the chance to be heard. “We have long lines every day confession is offered, which is five days a week. We have people coming for confession from other parishes,” Lenny said.

While St. Thérèse had a mission statement and core values before NGP, through the envisioning process they realized those old values were no longer relevant. This revelation caused them to revise their mission statement and create new parish goals, which they then used as the basis for everything in their parish. Click on the image below to read the parish’s vision and core values.

A great example of the mission statement as the cornerstone of their parish activity is reflected in their ministry discernment. As part of this process, all parishioners who led the various ministries were asked to reflect on how their ministry supported the parish’s mission. For example, the parish’s Whatsoever You Do Outreach Program is focused on providing financial assistance for those facing eviction or utility disconnections, or for those who are hungry and need access to the parish food pantry.

Lenny shared, “Next Generation Parish helped us to have a focus. Without Catholic Leadership Institute, we’d be rudderless.”

Even though NGP is winding down in Fort Wayne-South Bend, St. Thérèse Little Flower Catholic Church has no intention of slowing down. After the retake of the DMI, Lenny and the lay leadership team discovered new areas that needed attention in their parish, and they have created a new plan to reflect the need, primarily focused on continuing the work they began in reevaluating and creating needed ministries. In fact, Lenny said they would love to continue administering the DMI every three years.

“It’s such a great tool that allows you to continue learning and growing. People will come and go in our parish, but that’s ok. The DMI shows you where you are and is eye-opening. It showed us where we need to focus in order to meet our parishioners where they are,” he said.

St. Thérèse has optimistically embraced the fact that change is constant, and that their parish will continue to change, grow, and evolve. Thanks to your generosity, Next Generation Parish has equipped them to face those changes fearlessly and to steward their parish with a hopeful eye toward the future. We are excited to see what the future holds for the faithful servants at St. Thérèse!

P.S. Learn more about Lenny and parishes that navigated pastor transitions through Next Generation Parish in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in our recently published case study: Pastoral Plans are Easing Pastor Transitions.

by Chad Peddicord

June 26, 2024

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