Religions and Spirituality

St. Helen in Westfield Named One of Nation's Top Parishes by California Group

Fr. Michael Saporito, pastor of St. Helen, stands outside the church on Rahway Avenue in Westfield. Credits: Jill D'Ambrosio

WESTFIELD, NJ – The Parish Community of St. Helen is one of 12 churches nationwide chosen to participate in a series of leadership workshops by a Los Angeles-based lay organization.

The distinction was given by Parish Catalyst and came after St. Helen was included in the group’s initial list of the country’s top 100 Catholic churches. This is the first time Parish Catalyst has put together such lists.

“It was very surprising,” Fr. Michael Saporito, the church’s pastor, said while discussing the honor in the parish center. “It came out of the blue.”

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While the honor does not include a monetary prize, it allows pastors and their staffs from St. Helen and the other 11 churches to participate in four leadership conferences to be held in California over the next two years and to develop new ideas to bring home to their respective parishes.

The first workshop, planned for January, will feature renowned Evangelical minister and author Rick Warren. The topic of this first conference is “Dynamic Discipleship.”

St. Helen’s selection to participate in the workshops came after the leaders of the top 100 churches were interviewed about their church’s vital statistics, such as attendance and offertory, as well as their priests’ leadership and spirituality, said Claire Henning, director of one year-old Parish Catalyst.

“Our goal is to find innovative parishes across the country and to support them,” Henning said, noting that the group hopes to identify a second crop of churches for another leadership conference in the fall.

The original 100 churches were nominated by networks of church organizations, archdiocesan contacts and word of mouth.

Some of the other 11 churches joining St. Helen in January come from Ohio, North Carolina, Maryland and California. St. Benedict Catholic Church in Holmdel was also chosen.

A parishioner of 11 years, Cindy Sullivan said Saporito’s announcement at mass earlier this month that the church was one of the top 12 in the nation became the “buzz on the pick-up line” at her daughter’s school the following week. She was eager to learn more details about the honor and the group giving it.

Sullivan, who teaches her two daughters’ religious education classes, has long appreciated attending services at St. Helen.

“The homilies charge you for the day,” she said.

Keeping St. Helen moving forward and reaching out to all members of the congregation helps make the church unique, according to music director Cindy Brogan.

Brogan recently welcomed a donated drum set to her repertoire in the hopes of giving the Sunday night service, which tends to draw high school students, a more contemporary sound.

“I’m in my fifth year as music director and enjoy working with all of the members of our music ministry, both instrumentalists and vocalists, which range from our second graders to choir members who have sung here since our church was built,” she said.

The distinction from Parish Catalyst comes at a time when St. Helen is embarking on a trajectory change.

In September, priests at the church began an eight-week sermon series based on the book Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost and Making Church Matter, copies of which were passed out at Easter services.

Last weekend, Saporito and two staff members traveled to Timonium, MD, to attend a conference based on Rebuilt.

The Sunday he told the congregation about the honor from Parish Catalyst, Saporito also unveiled his message of “All In,” a rallying call “to our community to engage with us in making church matter again for those who are struggling in faith, those have left us or those who see little value in religious practice,” he wrote in a letter printed in the Nov. 3 bulletin.

With about 3,900 registered families in total, St. Helen saw 148 new families join the parish from July 2012 through June 2013.

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