Brushes, Brooms and Text Messages from God

Students combined a lot of hard work, fellowship and some good sermons during Spring Break 2009

From the south side of Chicago to the river city of St. Louis, Divine Word College students rolled up their sleeves and pitched in to help clean up three SVD parishes during this year’s spring break. From March 7-12, three different student groups worked at St. Anselm Parish in Chicago, Illinois, St. Patrick Parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis, Missouri.

Divine Word priests and Brothers have staffed St. Anselm since 1932. Fr. Donald Ehr is the SVD in residence and Fr. Abelardo Gabriel, SVD, is the associate pastor and administrator. Now an African American parish, St. Anselm was originally founded as an Irish American church. The poor Washington Park neighborhood where it is located has experienced a great population loss over the last 20 years, but St. Anselm remains a busy, active community. “The people are friendly and gave us a warm welcome,” says Nan Peck, DWC student counselor, who accompanied the St. Anselm service group. Trieu Cao, freshman seminarian and one of the students in this service group, says, “The way they adored God impressed me. The Mass was really interesting – they played drums and people loved to say Amen when they heard something interesting in the homily.” The congregation also joined hands in a circle for the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and everyone walked around to exchange the sign of peace, making sure it was extended to all.

“Text messages from God” was the subject of what Cao calls “a great homily,” given at the parish Mass on Sunday by an African American professor from the Catholic Theologate in Chicago. A nearly unanimous show of hands was raised in answer to her first question: “Who among you has a cell phone?” Having captured everyone’s attention, she then asked how many in the congregation had Bibles and only two people raised their hands. “She explained why the text messages of the Bible were essential to our lives today,” says Cao.

Service activities at St. Anselm included painting and cleaning, organizing a storage room and cooking for the homeless. DWC freshman Toan Nguyen says, “The parish people were welcoming and nice and they appreciated our help.” Another member of the service group, ESL student Fr. Hai Nguyen, adds, “Though it is small, the parish is a living parish because it has hope – with friendly, humorous people who develop their faith by sharing the gospel.”

Peck sums up everyone’s feelings when she says, “After working and talking with people from St. Anselm, they began to seem like long-standing friends, not simply new ones. And we felt that we wanted to help them make their parish community a place they can be proud of.”

Farther south down the road, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is St. Patrick Parish, a multicultural church composed of Hispanics, Anglo-Americans and Vietnamese. Fr. Chau Pham, SVD, is pastor and Fr. Tom Ascheman, SVD, serves as associate pastor.

“Our group worked from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. each day with a break at noon for lunch,” says Thinh Ngo, a DWC freshman who worked at St. Patrick’s. “We swept, mopped and waxed floors and washed the whole church from top to bottom. We also cleaned the basement, kitchen, gym and school.” Vinh Nguyen, an ESL student in the service group, adds, “The parish was really nice and the people very hospitable. I had a blast working there.”

One of the challenges for this church, according to Pham, is the ethnic diversity and constant influx of immigrants. He believes that the simplest and most effective way to approach integration is to take small, cooperative steps, one project at a time. Ngo adds, “Fr. Chau Pham was the person that sticks out the most to me – he was very friendly and easy to talk to. And Roy the janitor was a big help to us and very nice about everything.” He adds that the parishioners brought donuts for the students each day. “They also invited us over for dinner and we had a really great time.”

West of Fort Wayne, the third DWC service group worked at Resurrection of the Lord Parish in St. Louis, Missouri. In the heart of “south City,” Resurrection is a modern church of breathtaking architectural beauty, featuring a domed skylight and curved walls with tinted glass. Its original parish “folded” into another, and now a large Vietnamese Catholic congregation fills Resurrection every Sunday. Fr. Peter De Ta Vo, SVD, is pastor and Frs. Thomas Tran, SVD and Binh Nguyen, SVD, are associate pastors.

At Resurrection, students painted chairs and tables and swept and mopped floors. Khanh Ha, an ESL student from DWC, says, “It is a nice community and everyone gets along with each other very well.” He adds, “Some Vietnamese families invited us to their homes. They cooked a lot of Vietnamese food which was delicious for us and we really enjoyed it. The families were very kind and nice.”

Though they go on spring break service trips to help others, Divine Word College students reap their own special rewards from giving of their time.

Thinh Ngo explains, “I got to bond with my fellow seminarian brothers and Fr. Thang and Fr. Minh. The service trip helped me understand the importance of teamwork because by working together and helping each other out, it makes things easier and fun to accomplish.” Trieu Cao felt that the trip helped him in his spiritual and personal development. “I learned more about African Americans, their lives and how they worship,” he says. And Khanh Ha sums it up with: “This service trip helped us to understand each other more. It also helped us to improve our vocational journey and spiritual life.”