Thriving Parishes

While parish closings and mergers dominate headlines in certain parts of the country, they don’t tell the full story of the Church in the United States. Parishes across America are attracting new generations of Catholics by opening their doors to those seeking the beauty and the fullness of truth that can only be found in the Church.

Our Sunday Visitor is proud to highlight five of these dynamic parishes that are flourishing as they answer the Gospel call to share the message of Christ. From increased Eucharistic adoration to offering the faithful a beautiful liturgy to focusing on hospitality, these parishes are empowering their flocks to participate fully in the sacramental and spiritual life of the Church.

It is our hope that in holding up these examples, parishes across the country will begin a conversation about their own struggles and successes as they strive to bring the peace and joy of Christ to all.


Share your parish’s success story by emailing feedback@osv.com.

Emily Stimpson Chapman is an OSV contributing editor.

Small parish focuses on millennials

Our Lady of Lourdes | Denver, Colorado

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Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver has seen a 50 percent increase in Sunday mass attendance over the past few years. Courtesy photo

On the southside of Denver, big things are happening at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Over the past couple of years, the small (currently 920 families) neighborhood parish has experienced a 50-percent growth in Sunday Mass attendance. During the same time period, offertory contributions have increased by 35 percent.

Outside of Mass, the parish school that almost closed six years ago has been revamped by a new principal; it now offers a classical curriculum and is once more thriving. More than 20 small groups, most comprised of young adults, meet regularly. And on weekday evenings, parishioners meet up with Our Lady of Lourdes’ pastor, Father Brian Larkin, at a local pub for theological conversations.

“We’re not trying to do everything,” insists John O’Brien, the parish’s faith-formation director. “We’re trying to do a few things and do them well: invest in evangelization; invest in classical education for the schools; and invest in hospitality, so our parishioners feel like this is a real human community.”

Our Lady of Lourdes began doing those things just over five years ago. They recognized that the neighborhood — built, like the church, in the 1950s — was changing. Older parishioners were passing away, while young adults and families were flocking to the neighborhood. If the parish wanted to stay alive, it needed to attract those young people. And that, they knew, would be no small feat.

“Less than 4 percent of millennials go to church on a regular basis,” O’Brien said. “So how do you attract them?”

Our Lady of Lourdes’ approach was multifold.

Revamping the school was an important first step.

“A lot of families appreciate that our school is not a public school with a Catholic stamp,” says O’Brien. “It offers a deep Catholic culture, based in joy.”

The parish also has placed an emphasis on beauty — in the liturgy, music and architecture. The parish hired a former worship leader from Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio) to direct its music, began offering candlelight adoration services at its outdoor grotto and is undertaking renovations to the church itself, all to enhance parishioners encounter of God through the beautiful.

“Our culture is so broken,” O’Brien explained. “People don’t believe in truth. They’re not interested in goodness. But they do respond to beauty.”

The parish also started hosting “Gatherings at the Grotto” (monthly discussions on Church issues and teachings, followed by a reception), regularly running the Alpha Program (which O’Brien describes as “a great on-boarding for people in the Faith”) and putting a renewed emphasis on challenging preaching that speaks to the difficulties young singles and families face. Even the small details — like the parish’s revamped website — were tailored to speak to a younger generation.

According to O’Brien, the hard work (and smart targeting of their new neighbors) has paid off.

“Most of our growth comes from the millennials,” he explained.

“We’re doing so many weddings and baptisms now, it’s making the staff crazy. When I started, five years ago, it felt like all we did was funerals.”

Community responds to open-door policy

St. William Catholic Church | Round Rock, Texas

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Father Dean Wilhelm of St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock, Texas, speaks at an outdoor event. More than 6,600 families are registered at the parish near Austin, Texas. Courtesy photo

St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock, Texas, functions as much like a Catholic village as it does a Catholic parish. With 6,600 registered families (and many more unregistered), the church sits on a 30-acre campus that also includes a separate chapel for adoration, an early childhood development center, medical clinic, pavilion, prayer garden, parish office building and more. Plans also are underway to add a youth building and parish activity center.

More than 20,000 people interact with the parish on a regular basis, and St. William has so many parishioners involved in their 120-plus parish ministries that it employs a full-time volunteer coordinator.

Even with so much happening at St. William, however, the parish works hard to center their mission on the liturgy. That, said parish Chief Operations Officer Ana-Christina Gonzalez, helps keep everyone working toward the same goal and focused on the same mission.

“We make beautiful liturgy a priority,” she said. “It’s strong and faithful. That feeds everything else.”

The parish’s flagship faith-formation program, developed by Adult Faith Formation Director Noe Rocha, does something similar. Entitled “Jesus is Lord,” the program walks participants through how Catholic teaching applies to their everyday lives, helping the Faith to inform whatever other activities — inside or outside of church — parishioners participate in.

“Too many Catholics have this idea that our faith formation stops after confirmation,” Gonzalez said. “This helps take people beyond that, so they realize they have a responsibility to continue going deeper. It reviews what we learned as kids and brings that to an adult audience, addressing different topics every week, so Jesus is Lord … of my finances … of my politics … of my sexuality and so forth.”

Although St. William has benefited from the recent growth of Round Rock (a suburb of Austin) and its dynamic ministry offerings, Gonzalez also attributes the parish’s growth to some of the little things it does, like keeping the parish office open seven days a week.

“Our pastor, Father Dean Wilhelm, wants to make sure that working families can still be active in their parish,” Gonzalez said. “So, someone can register any day of the week, including Sunday.”

It also helps that the doors of the church are open at times most other parishes’ doors are closed.

“Father Dean is very passionate about people getting in,” Gonzalez said. “The Church is here for the people, so if someone needs access, if someone needs to be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, then it needs to be open. We get a lot of people who come here because they couldn’t get into their neighborhood parish. That led them to becoming parishioners.”

The church also has attracted parishioners by offering opportunities for confession almost every day, as well as six-hour-plus “marathon confession” sessions during Lent.

“The numbers don’t stop,” Gonzalez said. “That’s because they’re not finding it at their parish.”

Over the past decade, the parish has invested heavily in building a strong formation team and administrative staff. That allows it to do things, like run a medical clinic and early childhood development program, most parishes can’t do. It also allows it to do what all churches do — the liturgy and faith formation — at an exceptionally high level.

Doing all that, however, requires money, which is why the final key to St. Williams’ success, said Gonzalez, is stewardship.

“Parishes shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money,” she concluded. “You need to show people where their money goes and what it supports. You also need to challenge them about their responsibility as Catholics. We want to ensure that everyone who comes through these doors has access to a beautiful parish with strong catechesis and formation. To make that happen, stewardship needs to be part of the conversation.”

Hospitality key to success

Our Lady of Good Counsel | Plymouth, Michigan

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Dozens of new members are baptized every year during the Easter Vigil at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, Mich. Courtesy photo

Over the past several years, struggling parishes looking to find inspiration and help for renewal have turned to Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Plymouth, Michigan. There, they’ve found plenty of both.

In the 10 years that Ave Maria Radio host Father John Riccardo has served as pastor of the suburban Detroit parish, Our Lady of Good Counsel has gained a reputation as a model of what an evangelizing (and thriving) parish should be. With 3,200 families in the parish, the church campus is bustling from morning to night with formation activities, support groups and service-oriented apostolates.

More remarkable than the activities at Our Lady of Good Counsel, however, is the spirit driving those activities. Mary Guilfoyle, the parish’s evangelization and discipleship coordinator, describes that spirit as one of “radical hospitality.”

“When you walk up to our church, you’ll always find the doors wide open,” she said.

“When people come to visit us, our goal is to make them feel like they’re right at home. The adoration chapel is always available, and the welcome desk in our gathering space is almost always staffed. We also have an electronic kiosk where you can learn more about the parish. We do everything we can to help people get plugged in to the parish.”

Every Easter, Our Lady of Good Counsel regularly welcomes 45-50 people into the Church. Many of those people first came to the parish through the Alpha Program. In total, over the last three years, 3,800 Our Lady of Good Counsel parishioners have gone through the discipleship-building program, which Guilfoyle said has become the parish’s preeminent formation program and helped engage the whole parish in the Church’s evangelizing mission.

“After we took the first group through it, we discovered that 10 percent said they had a radical life-changing encounter, and 52 percent said they deepened their friendship with the Lord in ways they didn’t expect,” she said. “That experience has changed the culture of our parish.”

Our Lady of Good Counsel’s focus on evangelization and their mission of radical hospitality both were shaped with the help of the Catholic Leadership Institute, which the parish invited to help them refine their mission and vision. Prayer, particularly Eucharistic adoration, also shaped that focus.

“Eucharistic adoration is like a wrecking ball,” Guilfoyle said. “When you spend time before the Eucharistic face of Jesus, and ask him to lead you and guide you, everything changes. Prayer is the lifeblood of everything that happens here.”

Faithful find opportunities for formation

Our Lady of Mount Carmel | Carmel, Indiana

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Students pray in the adoration chapel at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Courtesy photo

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Carmel, Indiana, has something for everyone.

If you love reverent liturgies, with chant and incense, you’ll find it in many of their eight weekend Masses, where the preaching is solid and the liturgy steeped in tradition.

If, on the other hand, you want the opportunity to serve and give back to the community, volunteer opportunities abound at the parish, both through their social services center (the Matthew 25 Center) and the free medical clinic housed there. Located adjacent to the Church, the center’s food pantry served 8,700 families last year. It also sponsors an annual “Tools for School” fair, which provides everything from free school supplies to new shoes, socks and coats for children in need.

Parents looking for a solid Catholic education for their child can likewise find it for free at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, where a culture of tithing makes Catholic education a possibility for every family at every income level.

Other offerings include (but are not limited to) perpetual Eucharistic adoration, small groups for men and women, a dynamic faith-formation program for children and a large high school youth program (350 teens strong).

How can one parish manage to do so much?

According to Tom Ponchak, Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s adult faith-formation director, it helps that the parish (to which 3,800 families belong) is located in a large and growing suburb, just north of Indianapolis. It helps even more that the parish has participated in the Christ Renews His Parish Program for 40 years and counting.

“It’s been a launching point for so many people becoming involved in the community,” Ponchak said.

Even more fundamental to the parish’s dynamism, however, is its history of “strong and consistent leadership,” with priests who love the Faith, excel at preaching and are committed to cultivating a culture of stewardship.

“You need a good priest,” Ponchak said. “A lot of times the parish takes on the personality of the pastor. If it is someone who is outgoing and full of life, supportive and encouraging, that bleeds over into what the staff does and what the volunteers do.”

Equally fundamental, Ponchak believes, is Eucharistic adoration.

“We’re coming up on celebrating the 15th anniversary of our adoration chapel,” he said. “It’s had a big impact here, because it bathes the church in prayer. People constantly come in to pray. Another fruit of that is vocations. In the last 12 years, we’ve had 18 people become ordained or take final religious vows.”

For leaders of struggling churches who are looking to strengthen their own parish life, Ponchak advises starting small and keeping things simple.

“When times get tough,” he said, “the temptation is to turn away from the things that make us uniquely Catholic — to cut back on times for confession, have fewer daily Masses or none at all and lock the church doors. But we have something to offer that nobody else is offering: the sacraments. We have Christ in the Eucharist. Start with that, and try to build from there.”

Saying ‘yes’ sparks revival of the Faith at Tennessee basilica

The Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul | Chattanooga, Tennessee

Basilica
The faithful stand during Mass at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chat- tanooga, Tenn. Courtesy photo

Founded shortly before the American Civil War, the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul was once the anchor of the Catholic community in southeastern Tennessee. It thrived for well over 100 years. Then, the steel mills that formed the industrial core of Chattanooga closed and people began moving to the suburbs. In the 1980s the parish school followed the people and moved to the suburbs.

For the next 20 years, as the city’s demographics changed, the basilica bled parishioners; by the early 2000s, there was talk of its pending closure.

Around the same time, however, the city of Chattanooga began its climb out of economic malaise. New industry, with a focus on technology, attracted millennials to the region, and the City Council revitalized the downtown core. As the only downtown Catholic parish, Sts. Peter and Paul benefited from the growing numbers and its closure seemed less imminent.

Then, in 2012, Father David Carter became the new rector of the basilica. When he arrived, Sunday Mass attendance hovered around 450. Today, that average has climbed to north of 1,000. This past Easter alone, 75 people came into the Church through the Basilica’s RCIA program — 30 of those new converts were baptisms.

“I was slinging water the whole time,” Father Carter joked.

During the week, the parish is just as busy as it is on the weekend. Parishioners come to the parish for a weekly book study; they’re currently reading “The Benedict Option” (Sterling, $25) by Rod Dreher. Other activities include Wednesday night evenings of recollection, monthly Eucharistic adoration on First Fridays, regular youth events, a homeschool co-op that meets in the old school building, adult faith-formation classes, a motherhood group and even French language classes.

As for what explains the growth in numbers and activities, Father Carter swears, “It wasn’t me. One priest doesn’t change everything. The reality is the parish was poised to change. I was the guy who came in and pushed the button.”

He continued: “There was a priest in residence here, who when I arrived said, ‘Father Carter, you’re going to be inheriting a parish where all you have to do is say ‘yes’ and wonderful things will happen.’ And that’s what I did. People would say ‘Father can we have a Bible study?’ Yes. ‘Can we have families get together for a potluck?’ Yes. ‘Can we start a youth schola?’ Yes. ‘Can we start a homeschool co-op?” Yes.”

In addition to saying “yes,” Father Carter also did three important things.

First, he made a concerted effort to reach out to the city’s growing Hispanic population. Second, he placed a strong emphasis on liturgical renewal (he describes himself as a “liturgical maximist”). Third, he began what he calls the “Open Basilica Project.”

He explained, “For years, the basilica’s doors were closed on Sunday afternoon and weren’t reopened (unless there was a funeral) until Saturday afternoon. The lights never came on. But we’re downtown, and we have a beautiful church. We need to have our doors open. Beauty speaks to the soul in ways plain words can’t and elicits a certain response to faith.”

An increased number of daily Masses, daily confession, regular organ concerts and simply having the doors to the Church open during the day are all part of the Open Basilica Project. So, too, is a docent program that trains parishioners to give tours of the Church that highlight both its beautiful architecture and the faith behind it.

“We believe in the power of the Blessed Sacrament,” Father Carter said. “God can capture our hearts just by bringing them into his presence.”

7 Traits of a Thriving Parish
Successful parishes come in all shapes and sizes. They thrive in inner cities and suburbs, and they possess different strengths. At the same time, every parish with which we spoke had seven things in common.