Indiana Parish Rose to the Occasion During COVID, Continues to Demonstrate Exceptional Care, Concern, and Creativity
At a time when the culture and the Church are at transition points, it’s always a blessing to encounter the many bright lights shining forth in the Church today. And, contrary to popular sentiment, there are many bright and hopeful lights in our Church. At CLI, we have the opportunity to not only witness many of these bright lights but to participate in the lighting of these beacons which offer hope and encouragement for the future of the Church and parish life.
I invite you to meet Fr. Tony Steinacker, a priest from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Huntington, IN. Fr. Tony and his parish family are one of these bright lights who not only weathered the storm of COVID-19 in their parish and community but have come out shining brighter than ever before. This is a story of hope, sound pastoral leadership, dedicated parishioners, and the legacy of a small town with a rich history that radiates continuity and community.
As part of Next Generation Parish, SS. Peter and Paul are two of four years into the NGP process which included participation in the Disciple Maker Index survey (Fall 2019), parish priority planning (Spring 2020), and implementation (Summer 2021), in addition to ongoing leadership coaching for Fr. Tony provided by CLI. Their story is inspiring and offers hope for the future of the Church!
Fr. Tony and SS. Peter and Paul
Father Tony Steinacker remembers vividly the day a woman in his Huntington, Indiana parish opened up about her anxiety regarding returning to Mass after the COVID-19 shutdowns. The pastor at SS. Peter and Paul Parish in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend recalls with emphasis the words of this wife, mother, and active member of his parish: “The longer I stay away from Mass,” she admitted, “the harder it is to return.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing shutdowns and regulations affected every corner of communal life, Mass and church-going included. As initial reopening efforts began, many still faced health and social concerns. The responsibility to care for each member of the parish family during COVID was felt deeply by Fr. Tony and the rest of the parish leadership. As a 178-year-old parish nestled in a historically-rich Indiana town, many of SS. Peter and Paul’s families are four generations deep. This meant that when it came time for reopening the church, the physical and spiritual wellbeing of a wide diversity of ages and groups had to be considered. “You have a mixture of populations- elderly and young families,” Fr. Tony explains, highlighting the ingenuity and care that went into addressing multi-generational concerns.
After hearing his parishioner’s words, Fr. Tony and his team asked themselves a crucial question: “How do we entice people to come back to Mass?” Their brainstorming led to the launching of an intricate plan to invite the parish community back together. In just one month, Fr. Tony, the parish’s envisioning committee (created as part of Catholic Leadership Institute’s Next Generation Parish process), and countless volunteers and donors put together a 5-day festival to bring together hundreds of SS. Peter and Paul parishioners, as well as parishioners from the nearby Catholic Church. The theme was “Unity in our Community,” and the days packed with activity, food, and socializing were a smashing success.
From June 25-29, 2021, parishioners were invited to join in an array of activities, with the option of being indoors, in a tent connected to the building and outside, or outdoors. Food trucks provided much of the nourishment, with the two trucks at Sunday’s gathering having to leave to get more food (having each initially prepared enough for 240 people). Children enjoyed a movie night with snacks, and children, adults, and elderly alike came out for a chalk-drawing night.
The festival culminated on June 29 with the celebration of the parish’s feast day along with one of SS. Peter and Paul’s former seminarians, now priest, who celebrated Mass. Those who elected not to join in person, as with every other Mass, were welcome to join via livestream, an option made possible and beautiful thanks to new technology purchased by the parish with a $5,000 grant. According to Fr. Tony, thanks to the updated technology (in a 155-year-old building), over 1,000 people viewed the Easter and Christmas Masses last year, and presently about 100 people still livestream Sunday Mass.
Because of SS. Peter and Paul’s new and improved technology, Fr. Tony was also able to adapt a parish tradition. For years at Christmastime, the historic parish rectory (built in 1859) was decorated, and parishioners were welcomed for an open house. Last year, Father and volunteers still decorated the rectory, but rather than have an open house, Fr. Tony led a virtual tour. He also made several successful videos sent to parishioners to guide them through the reopening process and to celebrate their history and traditions. Fr. Tony mentioned a spiritual benefit to these tools and the decision to keep his parishioners guided and informed: “By sharing the information that was offered and seeking the assistance of several different individuals,” says Father. “All of these things were brought to prayer.”
This is not the only way Fr. Tony and SS. Peter and Paul went the extra mile for the flock. In the midst of the COVID shutdowns, Father says that “every single parishioner was contacted.” Twenty-five volunteers spent hours calling and checking in on every individual and family and asked if they would like follow-up calls. Those who requested follow-up calls were contacted every other month for 18 months (from March 2020 to June 2021). “We’ve worked as a team,” Father says proudly.
The efforts of Fr. Tony, his team, and the parish at large are impressive, to say the least. The large and vibrant church has provided a safe haven and rich community for her flock and the surrounding community. Fr. Tony says a lot of this is due to the “invaluable mentoring and coaching” provided by the Catholic Leadership Institute’s Next Generation Parish initiative (NGP). NGP helped create the envisioning committee at SS. Peter and Paul, composed of eight individuals in addition to Father with a variety of areas of expertise. “It’s allowed me to get to know eight people in our pews who have so much to offer that I didn’t know,” Fr. Tony says. He continues, “The people you have in your pews throughout the universal Church have so many gifts and are willing to help, and Next Generation Parish is facilitating the pastor to further know the gifts and talents of his parishioners in a new way.” He adds that the envisioning committee “greatly assists me in the care of our community.”
Father is clear that the faith, ingenuity, and thoughtfulness of the parishioners, channeled and guided by the direction of Next Generation Parish, set SS. Peter and Paul Church apart. “It’s been a different year, but we’ve done everything we could as a Catholic community of Huntington to make it not difficult by doing our best and not a half job,” Fr. Tony says.