NEW CANAAN—Does Christ have a teenager’s face? For Dorothy, a senior in St. Aloysius Parish, he does. She first met Luke, a teenager who belongs to the youth ministry, at a social event held shortly before the coronavirus crisis. A friendship developed between them, and during the quarantine, Luke regularly checked up on her. Shortly afterward, Dorothy sent this email to Father Rob Kinnally and Youth Minister Chris Otis:
“I am so grateful for the help I received from a member of your youth group, Luke McPhillips, who sat at my table at the Trinity Tea….He called me a few times to keep in touch and I always enjoy chatting with him. He offered to shop for me and previously I said ‘no.’ However, the last time he asked me, I was inspired to say ‘yes,’ since I felt it was important for me to let him exercise his kindness and generosity by letting him have the experience and satisfaction of doing community service.
I emailed him a list and told him there was no emergency and to go with his mother whenever she goes and personally fill a cart with my items. I was stunned a few hours later to get a text from Luke that they were on the way to my house with all the items on my list….When they left, I had to sit down to catch my breath, because they took my breath away by their kindness and thoughtfulness.”
It is a time of crisis. It is a time of kindness.
Chris Otis has always believed that service is fundamental to getting young people active in the church. Service combined with pray and worship. So when the coronavirus pandemic changed the world and the town of New Canaan, she and the teenagers in the St. Aloysius youth group reached out to the seniors of the parish, many of whom were alone and isolated.
In recent weeks, the teenagers and their families have called seniors to talk, to pray, to buy groceries and to be representatives of Christ during a fearful and tumultuous time.
As Otis says, “This situation is helping us all understand that we are not just a building—we are the Body of Christ, whether we are praying, worshipping and serving in one another’s physical presence or responding to Christ’s call in creative and different ways. At the core of what we are trying to do at St. A’s is help our young people understand that they are called to a relationship with Christ and called to put their faith into action by being a reflection of him.”
StAY—St. Aloysius Youth—has more than 200 young people involved in service projects. More than 70 teens and their families have been reaching out to help seniors by regularly calling them, praying with them on the phone and helping them by shopping for groceries, picking up prescriptions and connecting them to the Internet so they can watch Mass online.
The outreach is a response to a challenge from Father Rob Kinnally, pastor and diocesan chancellor, who urged them to continue to “be a reflection of Christ” even during this crisis.
“Our town is really trying very hard to get seniors to stay at home, and we are working with the town,” Otis said. “They sent out a list, and we have reached out to 180 of our elderly parishioners in 135 households.”
“Much of it is talking to them because they’re lonely,” Otis said.
A regular ministry of StAY is Service to Seniors, which hosts inter-generational events, such as the Trinity Tea, which several months ago filled the parish hall with teens and seniors enjoying conversation, dancing, singing and laughing.
“There is nothing that makes your heart swell more than when you can stand back and watch young people do what God is calling them to do,” Otis says.
Many such events are held on Sundays because, as Otis recalls, a senior said to her, “Sundays are the hardest day for us because we go to church and come home, and then we are alone.”
In addition to putting on events, Service to Seniors encourages visits to the homebound.
“Last year, we encountered a woman who was dying,” Otis says. “We called ourselves ‘The Sunshine Club” and visited her and prayed with her—and she told the kids, ‘I am praying for you.’”
Teenagers at St. Aloysius also regularly attend 5 pm Sunday Mass in addition to Eucharistic adoration, prayer services, retreats and mission trips.
A fundamental part of the youth ministry is service, Otis says. “That is so dear and close to my heart.”
Service work includes ministry to Breakthrough Options in Norwalk and the Thorpe Family Residence in the Bronx, where students mentor the children of single mothers. St. A’s Buddies helps teens and young adults with special needs. There are also Midnight and Breakfast runs to New York City, service at the New Covenant Center Soup Kitchen and typically two annual mission trips, including one to Kentucky, in cooperation with the Christian
Appalachian Project and local churches and town officials, to deliver Christmas stockings to children in need.
“Everything we do and all our service opportunities have teen leaders, and I work with them. They plan and come up with the mission. They pray and lead,” she said. “They are called to continue their own relationship with Christ and put their faith into action.”
Otis assumed the job of youth minister eight years ago. She and her husband John, who have three sons, moved to New Canaan 24 years ago and joined St. Aloysius Parish. Right from the beginning, they got involved with parish activities.
Otis eventually left her work in sales and took over the youth ministry and started to do things in what she describes as a “non-traditional way.” She developed a program that was based on the three pillars of prayer, service and worship. When she arrived, the one component that had been lacking was service.
“Our young people were saying to us that if they were going to show up, they wanted to do something,” Otis said. “Young people have this desire to serve others and to love others, and we have to give them the opportunity. They’re hungry for these opportunities. They want to be part of the Church, and it is so important to cement this desire. We have to put into place ways for our teens to answer God’s call.”
By Joe Pisani