Near a railroad crossing at the end of idyllic Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown, New Jersey, the ghost sign of a long-gone milk purveyor stretches across Riverview Studio’s western wall. For the past 17 seasons, the “Puritan Milk” lettering has greeted more than 600 teenagers who traded beach trips and lazy days for part of their summers spent working on Realfaith TV. And for the past 17 summers, Marianne Hartman has been at the helm of the show, which strives to connect young people with each other and the Church in order to become more committed disciples of Jesus Christ.
Realfaith TV, affectionately known as RFTV, is a spin-off of “The Catholic Corner,” an interview-based program hosted by Msgr. Walter Nolan, a priest of the Diocese of Trenton. Finding itself without a guest one day 17 years ago, the show aired Christian music videos in an effort to reach younger viewers. Hartman invited two youth groups to discuss the videos with Msgr. Nolan, and the Gabriel Award-winning, faith-based television show for and by teenagers was born.
“[The Catholic Corner episode] went really well, we had the kids on the set ... and after it was over, we thought about doing more shows like that to get the young people involved,” said Hartman, the director of the Diocese of Trenton’s department of multimedia production. “[Co-creator Ken Perry and I] just had to figure out how to do it.”
In the summer of 2000, Hartman was met with a surplus of funds leftover from a canceled project and shot the pilot for the 10-show first season of RFTV, which featured 10 teens. The show included discussion topics, spotlight guests, music videos and man-on-the-street interviews, a format that has evolved over the years since its debut.
Vanessa Walsh, one of the original cast members, said she was drawn to the show because of the faith component, not because she wanted to be on TV.
“I started because I thought it was cool to talk about my faith, and more than 10 years later, I’m still talking about it,” said Walsh, now a Catholic campus minister in St. Paul, Minn. “I was given a leadership role and was able not only to share my faith, but to grow in it, as well.”
Realfaith TV provides answers to many of the issues high schoolers face through the Catholic perspective, Hartman said. And the show has tackled some tough topics, including human trafficking, teenage pregnancy, eating disorders and cyber bullying.
Some topics have even been revisited throughout the years to account for the changing ways teens have to face their problems.
“Bullying has always been a problem, but now the teens have to deal with it in person, on Facebook and on their phones,” Hartman said.
“The clothes in some of the early shows might be a little bit different, but because they are topics, many of the shows are still relevant. Kids don’t always care about how people look. If it’s something they care about and are interested in, they’ll take the time to listen.”
Walsh, a cast member from 2000 to 2004, said the show has remained successful over the years because of the way it continues to be relatable to generations of teens.
“It was a great step along the way, not only with my own faith, but in my relationship with the Church. I am grateful for the experience that I had, and it’s great that the show is still on so many years later.”
— Vanessa Walsh
, a 2000-04 cast member of Realfaith TV
“I believe in the value of peers talking to peers, and peers talking about their faith is important,” she said. “There’s a difference in your peers talking about faith, you think ‘they’re cool and talking about Jesus, maybe it’s cool if I talk about Jesus, too.’”
Michael Schraft, who is entering his second season of RFTV, will serve as a co-host in 2016-17. He said the show has helped him open up about his faith.
“I feel that if you don’t believe in your faith, you aren’t confident talking about it,” said the high school junior. “And while you don’t need to talk about it to remain faithful, it’s important to let others know what I stand for, what I mean and how I’m going to live my life. … This is important to me.”
Walsh also said her connection to Catholicism was strengthened by the show.
“My faith continues to be important to me, and Realfaith TV has played a large part in my faith journey,” she said. “It was a great step along the way, not only with my own faith, but in my relationship with the Church. I am grateful for the experience that I had, and it’s great that the show is still on so many years later.”
Other RFTV alums agreed.
“When you are younger, your faith starts off as something that’s routine,” said Karalee Hinz, who worked with Realfaith TV in various capacities, including cast member, co-host and behind-the-scenes roles, between 2011 and 2015. “Being involved in [Realfaith TV] made me realize I have a personal connection to God that’s more than just through my parents or youth group.
“The show allowed me to really find my voice in my faith and tell people what my faith means to me, why I believe what I believe. It made my faith my own.”
And the show isn’t only for Catholics.
| The 2015-16 cast of Realfaith TV includes (from left) Michael Healy, Ella Ahern, Elizabeth Farawell, Karalee Hinz, Thomas Mayer, Monique Pettit and Michael Schraft. Courtesy Realfaith TV
“At the time I started with the show, I wasn’t Catholic,” said Vince McNeil, a Realfaith TV spotlight guest and crew member from 2006 to 2009. “In my heart I was, because I went to Catholic school since I was 5 years old, but I had never been baptized.”
McNeil was raised as a Baptist — a Christian denomination that doesn’t baptize people until they reach their teens — in a “not particularly religious” home.
“Realfaith absolutely has been a major factor in my faith journey,” he said. “I didn’t have the opportunity to pursue religion at home, and I was essentially brought up in the Catholic faith through religion classes in school. Realfaith gave me advice that was useful, gave me a chance to ask tough questions [that weren’t covered in school]. … Everyone there had the same goals and integrity. It provided a safe zone of peers.”
While McNeil said “becoming Catholic was always something I knew would happen in the end,” he didn’t realize his dream of becoming a Catholic until college.
He was a student at Temple University in Philadelphia and worked as a tree tender with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. One of the locations he was charged with beautifying were the grounds of St. Malachy’s Church in the northern part of the city.
After working within the large Catholic community, McNeil decided to attend Mass there. And while he was welcomed to come back, he found it difficult to go alone.
“I was the only person I knew who was in that situation, so it made it difficult for me,” McNeil said. However, he reached out to Hartman, who contacted St. Malachy’s and got McNeil into an adult faith formation program.
“It made me feel much more comfortable with Catholicism; It was a great experience to be able to ask all the questions I had to better interpret the faith,” said McNeil, who was welcomed as a full member of the Church during the Easter Vigil in 2012. “It was wonderful being able to come into church and not feel like a black sheep. ... Through all those years of uncertainty, I finally felt that I was one with the Church that I should have been part of from the beginning.”
And while the show began as a way for the Diocese of Trenton to reach teens locally, it now airs in Pennsylvania, California, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts and New York.
Hinz, who recently completed her first year studying public relations at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge learned of the show’s reach firsthand. While in a class at LSU, she was puzzled to hear one of her friends say she had seen Hinz on TV.
When she returned to her dorm, Hinz flipped through the channels, and there she was, face-to-face with herself.
“I never expected to see myself on TV in Louisiana, let alone be recognized by someone I knew,” she said. “Realfaith helped me become who I am and helped me decide what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Watch new episodes of Realfaith TV this fall at realfaithtv.com.
Brittany Wilson writes from Philadelphia.