September 6, 2019

Evangelization and Catechesis Supplement

Veteran New Albany Deanery catechetical leaders help form the next generation

Deacon John Jacobi, left, Ann Northam and Tom Yost pose for a photo during a luncheon to celebrate the retirement of Northam, who stepped down this summer after serving for 35 years as director of religious education at Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Jeffersonville. All three are veteran catechetical leaders in the New Albany Deanery who have mentored lay Catholics entering into the ministry in the deanery. (Submitted photo)

Deacon John Jacobi, left, Ann Northam and Tom Yost pose for a photo during a luncheon to celebrate the retirement of Northam, who stepped down this summer after serving for 35 years as director of religious education at Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Jeffersonville. All three are veteran catechetical leaders in the New Albany Deanery who have mentored lay Catholics entering into the ministry in the deanery. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Deacon John Jacobi grew up in St. Michael Parish in Bradford in the New Albany Deanery in the 1970s and 1980s at a time when lay Catholics were just beginning to serve as leaders of catechetical ministry in faith communities in central and southern Indiana.

Clara Fessel was St. Michael’s director of religious education at the time.

“She was a saint,” Deacon Jacobi recalled.

Deacon Jacobi took over leadership of his home parish’s catechetical programs in 1995 when he was 25. Ann Northam, the longtime director of religious education at Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Augustine parishes in Jeffersonville, was a mentor for Deacon Jacobi in his early years of ministry.

About a decade later, Deacon Jacobi mentored Michelle Fessel when she became the youth minister of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany. Fessel was also assisted by Tom Yost, the parish’s pastoral associate who has ministered there for nearly 37 years.

Fessel is now the sage veteran passing on wisdom gained in the past in serving as director of parish initiatives at Catalyst Catholic, a youth ministry organization for parishes in the New Albany Deanery. At 39, she is also the oldest member of Catalyst Catholic’s leadership team.

Passing on the faith forms one generation to the next. That’s how the Gospel has been proclaimed from the earliest days of the Church.

The stories of Yost, Northam, Deacon Jacobi and Fessel show how it’s also the way that lay Catholics have been formed over the past generation to lead these efforts in faith communities in the New Albany Deanery.

Leadership as ‘walking alongside’

Tom Yost was in his last year of studies of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., in 1982 when he and other theology students were talking about their future.

Many looked forward to teaching in Catholic high schools in the area. Yost had another idea.

“I said, ‘You know, I’m kind of thinking of parish work,’ ” Yost recalled. “And they all looked at me like, ‘What?’ It was a little foreign to them.”

That was because hiring lay Catholics as parish staff members was still a fairly new phenomenon at the time. Yost, however, grew up seeing lay Catholics taking on leadership roles in the Church. In fact, he saw it especially in his mother, who helped lead archdiocesan Catholic Youth Organization programs in the New Albany Deanery.

Yost was hired in 1982 as a part-time staff member at Our Lady of Perpetual Help to oversee adult education, confirmation preparation and vacation Bible school.

It became a full-time position the following year. Yost has never looked back, and continues to serve as a pastoral associate at the New Albany faith community 37 years later.

Over that time, he’s helped to create dozens of ministries at the parish that are now led by parishioners. Yost has also been a force of stability at the parish as it has changed pastors and lay staff members many times over the years.

“There’s a tremendous amount of gratitude to God, gratitude for staff members, pastors and all kinds of people who’ve said ‘yes’ when you’ve invited them into something,” he said. “Gratitude goes a long way. I realize that there’s a lot of hard work, but also a lot of God’s graces that make this happen and move people’s hearts.”

Yost sees his leadership at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the image of a shepherd who at times walks in front of the sheep, at times goes to the back to help those who are struggling and at other moments walks alongside sheep as they go along.

“The walking alongside is the part that I’m most grateful for,” he said. “That’s where I would rather be if I could be anywhere.”

That’s where he was when Fessel was hired as the parish’s youth minister in 2002, her first job working as a parish staff member.

She appreciated the way Yost helped her adjust to serving as a leader in the parish.

“We always looked to Tom for support, because at one time or another, he had filled the role of DRE (director of religious education) or youth minister or just answering the phone,” Fessel said. “He knew how to do about everything. He knew all of our jobs well, but we were never intimidated by him.”

‘Their faith showed through’

When Fessel was starting ministry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in 2002, she was also mentored by Deacon Jacobi. He felt grateful that he was able to pass on to her the wisdom he had received in his early years in ministry from such veterans of lay parish catechetical leaders in the deanery as Dolores Snyder, Ann Northam and Bob Leonard.

“Their faith showed through,” Deacon Jacobi said. “They were all very humble. Bob would often describe God’s creative personality. He would remind us that God would work in the chaos. There’s a certain amount of life in ministry that feels like chaos. Bob would remind me that God was simply creating. I’ll remember that forever.”

Northam retired this summer after serving as a director of religious education. She saw her fair share of joys and challenges over that time.

“The joys are when the sacraments are celebrated,” she said with emotion. “Every Easter Vigil is just such a wonderful opportunity. I cannot express what it feels like when those people are baptized and received into the Church.”

And in serving as long as she did, Northam sometimes had the chance to see the baptism of children whose parents she helped form in the faith long ago.

“Those are the high points,” she said. “That’s when you feel God’s presence in all you do. That’s the best.”

In recent years, when she’s faced challenges, she’s sought out the intercession of catechetical leaders who have died, especially Conventual Franciscan Brother Bob Baxter, who died in 2018.

“I had a picture of Brother Bob right here by my desk, and every time I would struggle, I would look at that picture and say, ‘OK, Bob, you’ve got to help me here,’ ” Northam recalled.

It’s the mutual support among parish catechetical leaders in the deanery that has helped them become more effective ministers to their parishioners.

“Ministers need support from other ministers,” said Fessel. “Sometimes that support is hard for us to seek from our families, or our pastor, who is also our boss. Sometimes the best person to lend an ear and encourage us in prayer is someone else who is living that same role as a parish [catechetical] administrator.”

Having benefited from the faith and support of veteran catechetical leaders, Fessel is now looking forward to doing the same for the next generation of leaders at Catalyst Catholic and in New Albany Deanery parishes.

“I feel like I was given that gift,” Fessel said. “Now it’s time for me to repay that gift by helping others.” †

 

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