September 25, 2009

Building bridges and friendships: Priest and parishes use novel approaches to support neighborhoods and families

As he walked through the neighborhood of St. Anthony Parish in Indianapolis on Sept. 16, Father John McCaslin met Maria Carlos and her daughter, Jennifer. Father McCaslin is the pastor of St. Anthony and Holy Trinity parishes, two parishes which are using their combined efforts to make a difference in a struggling area of the city. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As he walked through the neighborhood of St. Anthony Parish in Indianapolis on Sept. 16, Father John McCaslin met Maria Carlos and her daughter, Jennifer. Father McCaslin is the pastor of St. Anthony and Holy Trinity parishes, two parishes which are using their combined efforts to make a difference in a struggling area of the city. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

As he drives through the near west side of Indianapolis, Father John McCaslin sees the vacant lots and abandoned houses that scar the neighborhood.

The 42-year-old priest also notices the prostitutes and drug dealers who are a bane to the many hardworking residents of the area, who strive for a good life for their families.

Yet Father McCaslin prefers to focus on a different defining image of the neighborhood—an image that captures two children in a moment of fun. One child only speaks Spanish while the other only speaks English, but the children play together easily.

“Where there’s good will,” Father McCaslin says, “things will work.”

Those words could easily be the slogan for the inspiring approach to urban ministry that has continued to grow since Father McCaslin became pastor of Holy Trinity and St. Anthony parishes in Indianapolis in 2006.

“Urban parishes can be renewed and reborn, and we’re the first line of mission territory,” Father McCaslin says. “Families are struggling, the economy is difficult and many people are un-churched. The need to bring the Gospel to people in many ways is urgent. That’s what our two parishes are trying to do. Urban ministry requires creativity.”

Consider some of the recent initiatives and developments that have been pursued by these now connected parishes:

• An organization called Hearts and Hands of Indiana was formed in April under Father McCaslin’s leadership, an organization that plans to buy abandoned houses in the area and rehabilitate them as homes for low-income families.

“The whole idea is to change the life of a family, to help them feel they belong, and help them feel a part of the parish,” Father McCaslin says.

• St. Anthony Parish has formed a community partnership with the Indiana University School of Social Work in Indianapolis to help respond to the needs of the parish’s largely Hispanic population —needs that include counseling and referrals for assistance.

• The new Holy Family Shelter for homeless families is scheduled to open in November on the grounds of Holy Trinity Parish.

“We’re looking at the shelter as a real complement to us,” the pastor says. “Our hope is that [the shelter’s residents will] pray with us and come to our worship.”

• The second annual “Saints in the Streets” neighborhood clean-up day will take place on Oct. 3, drawing volunteers from St. Anthony, Holy Trinity, St. Barnabas and St. Christopher parishes and Roncalli High School, all in Indianapolis.

“We had 140 blessed people show up last year to help,” Father McCaslin says. “We’re working together to clean up the streets in our neighborhood.”

They’re all part of the efforts that the two parishes are making in the hope of revitalizing a once-thriving area—trying to build up the neighborhood and support families through a foundation of faith.

Building bridges and friendships

The connection between the two parishes wasn’t a natural one when Father McCaslin arrived in January of 2006. The parishes had to adjust to sharing a priest. They had to try to understand and interact with each other—a challenge considering that the majority of one parish speaks Spanish and the majority of the other parish speaks English.

“The parishes are the real story in all of this,” their pastor says. “I tell the leaders at both parishes, ‘The Catholic Church has two legs on the near west side—St. Anthony and Holy Trinity. And the Church on the near west side will not walk or run without those two legs.’ I wanted them to see each other as partners in the same mission.”

Trying to build friendships and bridges, the two parishes combined in the joint ministry of Christ Renews His Parish. Bilingual meetings have been established between the parishes to plan events. Different spiritual traditions have been shared among parishioners whose roots are Hispanic, African, Vietnamese, Filipino, Sloverian and other European ethnicities.

“Father John can pull together Hispanics and non-Hispanics,” says Bob McCurdy, the chairperson of St. Anthony’s parish council. “We really do have a melting pot here. As far as running the parishes, we’re pretty independent. We work together pretty closely in social events. We believe in what’s happening here. We believe in Father John. He’s a young, dynamic priest who wants to make the parishes better.”

Hispanic members of the community appreciate his leadership, interest and concern.

“He’s a great leader, a great priest and a great friend, especially with the Hispanic community,” says Maricela Puentes, a member of St. Anthony Parish. “He wants our whole community to be united with the English-speaking community. He wants us to be one. He always wants us to grow in our faith, and he’s always there to listen. We have a lot of ways to celebrate our faith in our culture. And he’s always willing to try them.”

That same reaction is shared by the lay leadership at Holy Trinity Parish.

“He cares about the community, and he cares about the parishioners,” says Debra Brooking-Northard, the chairperson of Holy Trinity’s parish council. “I’m just thinking of all the things he’s done since he came here. It’s outstanding. He’s very supportive, very spiritual and he’s brought a lot to our parish in the ways of organization and community.”

‘Providence brings people together’

Efforts have also been made to reach out to other parishes for help.

After having the idea for Hearts and Hands of Indiana, Father McCaslin talked to Tom Egold, tapping into a friendship that developed when Father McCaslin was an associate pastor at St. Barnabas Parish for three years and Egold was president of the St. Barnabas pastoral council.

“He asked me to help start Hearts and Hands,’ ” Egold recalls. “It’s about making a difference and doing something for a family one at a time. We’re going to try to mentor them and make them part of the community. Our vision is that we’ll do such a good job that we’ll offer our business model to communities throughout the United States.”

The Hearts and Hands organization is a grassroots approach for now, funded initially by its board of directors, other friends and Father McCaslin.

“He was one of the first ones to give a decent amount of money,” Egold says. “We wanted to give him his check back because he’s donating his life to us as a priest. But he insisted. We’re bound and determined to make a difference.”

Father McCaslin also benefited from his St. Barnabas connections to form a partnership with the Indiana University School of Social Work. As a social worker and St. Barnabas parishioner, Christine Turo-Shields offered Father McCaslin her services to help start a program that provides counseling and referral assistance for Hispanics.

“Providence brings people together,” Father McCaslin says. “God aligns things in your life in a particular way. Everything I’ve done has not been done alone. It’s being done by people who are interested and motivated to do something. If it’s of God, it will work. If not, it will pass away. And that’s OK.”

A man with a vision and a belief in God’s guidance, Father McCaslin plans to continue planting seeds in an urban garden, hoping to create a harvest of hope and faith for people who need both.

“I hope I’m doing what God is asking of me,” he says. “I’m trying to be faithful to the Gospel despite the challenges. I’m trying to serve the parishes as best I can, knowing [that] I fail sometimes. I’m trying to create energy about evangelization and getting out there in the neighborhood to make a difference.

“We want to stay open to what Christ will lead us to do tomorrow.”

(For more information about Hearts and Hands of Indiana, log on to the Web site at or call 317-631-2939 or 317-636-4828.)

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