During the COVID-19 lockdown, Father Norbert Siwinski O.F.M., pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Bridgeport, discovered parishioners he never had before—from all over the world.
As part of his strategy to reach out to his faith community through Facebook and live-stream Masses in English and Polish, he touched many more people worldwide.
“Now, I have two parishes—in Bridgeport and our online visitors,” he said. “It’s so nice for me, like a big family. There are people from Texas and Arizona, where they don’t have Polish-speaking parishes, who come to pray with us.” Not to mention visitors from as far away as Lithuania, United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. In fact, the St. Michael Facebook page has 1,000 followers.
The enthusiasm he brings to his job as pastor for the past two years is evident. He came to America after being the pastor of a German church outside Cologne for 14 years. Father, who is half Lithuanian and half Polish, grew up in Poland.
A year ago, St. Michael’s celebrated its 120th anniversary, and for most of that time, it was a Franciscan-run parish, which today attracts visitors from all over the state, including German-speaking people who come to Father for their confessions. The only other German-speaking priest is in Boston, he says.
Father Norbert is especially proud that his parish raised more than 80 percent of its goal for the Annual Catholic Appeal.
“It was a really hard year for our parish because of COVID-19, and we had to find new solutions,” he said. “We couldn’t celebrate in the church, so I started doing Facebook live-streaming every day with evening Mass and prayer services. We are a Polish-American church, and this has become a meeting place for Polish-speaking people and many visitors come to be with us online.”
St. Michael’s also has a YouTube channel with sermons and songs, which Father calls, “a piece of home for Polish people in America.”
“For me, the Annual Appeal is very important; it is part of our identity,” he said. “While we are a Polish-American family, we are also part of the diocese. We have our own traditions and liturgy, but we belong to the Diocese of Bridgeport.”
Participation is key
Joe Gallagher, chief development officer of the diocese, said that over 11,270 generous donors have made over 13,700 gifts to the appeal, raising $7 million.
Gallagher said that Mass attendance restrictions with the limited ability to attend services in person is effecting the Appeal performance in dioceses across the U.S.
“Many dioceses are seeing a 30 percent reduction in the overall goal achievement, we have achieved 77 percent of the goal and it continues to grow,” said Gallagher who believes the response has been above the national average because of the bishop’s leadership during the crisis.
“Participation is key, not just for this year but for the future,” says Gallagher. “Our bishop has made it clear that we’re all in this together and that we’re facing extraordinary needs. There is still time to join those who have responded to the bishop’s call and given so generously,” he said.
For Gallagher who joined the diocese in August, this year’s ACA is his first and he says he is encouraged by enthusiastic response by donors and the parishes who are nearing or have already achieved goal. He said the leadership of pastors is one of the most significant factors in a parish’s response to the ACA.
St. Elizabeth Seton, Ridgefield
Father Joseph Prince, pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Ridgefield, who will be celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest next year and 25 years in his parish, believes his faith community has an astute awareness of the mission of the universal Church.
“It’s not only that we think and care about our own needs in the parish, but our people also stand up to help meet the needs of the people in the universal church,” he said. “They are always generous and ready to contribute in any way possible. They are just lovely people.”
Father, who was ordained in India and served three years in that country before coming to America, said his parishioners are very active in charitable works and they volunteer regularly at the Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Danbury. They also have an active outreach in the community, collecting coats and clothes for the needy, contributing to food panties and conducting a Christmas gift drive for Blessed Sacrament Parish in Bridgeport.
“They are always looking to help people and extend Christian charity to others,” he said.
St. Elizabeth Seton Parish raised more than 82 percent of its goal in the Annual Catholic Appeal. Father said, “I just really want to thank my people for their wonderful love and affirmation of my ministry in the parish and give special thanks to Bishop Caggiano for all he has done.”
Despite the limits on Mass attendance and the need to live-stream, Father said that the offertory is holding steady and many people are giving online or through the mail.
Reflecting on the role of the parish priest during times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, “We are always there for them. Before every Mass and after every Mass, we greet people. We are present in their lives and always ready to serve them in any way possible.”
St. Margaret Mary, Shelton
Father Ciprian Bejan, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Church in Shelton, applauds his parishioners for raising 113 percent of the parish goal in the Annual Catholic Appeal.
“They are very generous; they give generously even though they are not wealthy people,” he said. “And they understand the importance of giving.”
Father said that he conducted a silent appeal. “With COVID-19 and the restrictions, I didn’t really push too much, but I mentioned the appeal to them.”
The success was gratifying, and he attributes it to their appreciation and understanding of what the appeal does.
“During the past two years, I mentioned its importance and what we do and how much can happen when we join our resources on the parish level with the diocese,” he said. “They were made aware about the good things the Catholic Church does with our money.”
He said his parishioners are also very generous with their time in charitable activities and volunteer work in the area.
“We made people aware that in addition to helping others in need throughout the diocese, they also come back to the parish,” he said. “And while COVID-19 has been challenging, with their generosity, we have been able to cover our expenses and parish life continues to move forward without having to worry about the lack of resources.”
St. Margaret Shrine, Bridgeport
Deacon Don Faust, administrator of St. Margaret Shrine, said he is constantly overwhelmed by the generosity of those who form the community of faith at the shrine located about a mile from the Catholic Center in Bridgeport. Presently, the Shrine has achieved 99 percent of its goal with nearly a 30 percent participation rate, one of the highest in the diocese.
“They’re just unbelievably generous, no matter what we ask for,” said Deacon Faust, who is grateful and proud of the response he and Father Giandomenico Flora have received as they’ve presided over the revival and restoration of the Shrine, which now draws visitors from all over the region.
The deacon is also quick to share credit for the Shrine’s high participation rate with super volunteer Angelo Cocco.
“He is just so devoted to the ACA and puts his heart into it. Angelo speaks at all of the Masses, and he is really one of the reasons for our success.”
Deacon Faust said that St. Margaret Shrine has developed into a caring and diverse worship community with about 375 people attending Mass each weekend. Masses are held outside when the weather permits and in the Shrine’s small chapel.
One other reason for success is the empathy of people for each other and an awareness that many are in need.
“We have a number of people who are suffering, even here at the Shrine. When we determined our goals last year, we allotted additional money for outreach to help with tuitions, gifts cards, and the Food Bank. As a result our people know the importance of the ACA and its ability to reach others throughout the diocese, and they’re committed to supporting it.”
Pamela S. Rittman, director of the Annual Catholic Appeal for the diocese, said the demand for services increased significantly during the COVID-19 crisis, and it continues today because of job losses, homelessness, the death of loved ones and the need for counseling.
“This is where the Annual Catholic Appeal is so important,” she said. “A gift of $5, $20 or larger, no matter the amount, makes a difference.”
Rittman said “When we think about Thanksgiving and what we are grateful for and when we look forward to Advent and Christmas in these challenging times, remember there are many people who are in worse situations, who depend on the diocese for their daily meal, for online Masses and prayer services, and for faith and formation programs. Parents of children who receive tuition assistance from the Bishop’s Scholarship Fund or who are now in need of funding receive help from the Appeal. It is a vital ministry to assist our parishioners and community as Christ calls us to do so.
Please help Bishop Caggiano assist our neighbors and friends and a make a pledge at www.2020ACABridgeport.com, text the word APPEAL to 475.241.7849, or call 203.416.1470 and someone will help you make your special gift. Does your company participate in a matching gift program? Your gift may be doubled or tripled. Please call the Development Office at 203.416.1312 for instructions on how to make the most of your generosity.
By Joe Pisani