From an ocean away, St. Aloysius family stays connected to parish in Saudi Arabia

Rick and Corey Vanden Boom, members of St. Aloysius Parish in downtown Detroit, might win the award for living the farthest from their home parish. The Vanden Booms, along with their children Zeke, Murphey, Harvey and Theodore, live in Saudi Arabia — where Rick and Corey teach at the American International School of Jeddah. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Living in a country where Christianity is illegal, Vanden Boom family nevertheless finds ways to share and practice their faith

DETROIT — Rick and Corey Vanden Boom might win the award for living the farthest away from their home parish.

It’s not unheard of for families to cross municipal or county lines to go to a parish with a particular pastor or liturgical preference. But the Vanden Booms, parishioners at St. Aloysius Parish in Detroit, have quite the distance between their home and the historic downtown parish.

About 6,692 miles, to be precise, because the Vanden Booms live in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

These far-flung parishioners’ journey to St. Aloysius began when Rick Vanden Boom was president and principal of Our Lady of the Lakes School in Waterford from 2015-18. One day, his name popped up in an online resume portal for the American International School of Jeddah.

“Someone was sweeping out the profiles, kind of cleaning up the database, when they called me and asked if I wanted to send an updated resume,” Vanden Boom told Detroit Catholic. “I ended up interviewing and making it to the finals of the group. Like most people, you don’t expect to be the one to go there. But long story short, we ended up taking an opportunity to provide a diverse education for the kids. To understand a different part of the world with which we weren’t familiar.”

So the Vanden Booms, along with their children Zeke, Murphey, Harvey and Theodore, headed to the American International School of Jeddah, a K-12 private school established by Saudia Airlines — then a division of Trans World Airlines — to provide an American-style education to the families of American pilots.

Rick serves as the principal and Corey is a teacher at the school, which educates approximately 1,000 students from all over the world who seek an American education.

Moving to Saudi Arabia — a place where Christianity is illegal — presented challenges for the family. The Vanden Booms were used to their parish community at Our Lady of the Lakes, but now were in a Muslim country where they seemed like the only Catholics.

When the family moved to Saudi Arabia in 2018, they took advantage of livestreams and online media from the Archdiocese of Detroit such as Detroit Catholic and Unleash the Gospel to stay connected to their faith. 

Desperate to find some semblance of community, the family continued to stay connected with the Archdiocese of Detroit. When they learned Fr. Mario Amore, a priest they knew from his visits to Our Lady of the Lakes, had been assigned as pastor of St. Aloysius, the family decided to make the parish their new “summer home” when they were visiting Rick’s parents.

“We saw the assignments for the new priests in April, and we thought it was interesting to go somewhere new,” Rick Vanden Boom said. “We like being the underdog, and seeing a young priest go to a historic church that had this tremendous outreach in downtown Detroit felt like a unique opportunity.”

Raising four young children, the Vanden Booms knew they wanted to find a parish home in Detroit for their children to receive the sacraments. Zeke received his first Communion two weeks ago, while Theodore was baptized there two summers ago. Next summer, Murphey will make her first Communion at the parish.

Catholic life in Saudi Arabia is a bit complex. Technically, Christianity is illegal in the country where the Islamic prophet Muhammad was born and the home of Mecca, the holiest site in the Islamic faith.

Working in a society with a Sunday-to-Thursday week means heading home Sunday night to catch a livestream of a Sunday morning Mass in the United States. In fact, the Vanden Booms might be among the few families whose access to Mass increased when parishes began livestreaming Masses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, the Vanden Booms were able to meet others in Saudi Arabia who shared their faith, and formed a small Catholic community in Jeddah that met in their home to pray the rosary. They also on occasion attended liturgies at the British consulate, where four Franciscan priests rotated in celebrating Saturday night Mass.

After COVID-19 restrictions closed off the consulate to most of the public, the Vanden Booms adapted — turning their home into a makeshift church.

“The priests come to our house about once a month, and we transform our house into a church,” Rick Vanden Boom said. “We have a lot of icons and stuff, pictures of patron saints up, crucifixes and rosaries in the house. We bring everything into the main room, and the priest shows up in street clothes, so we have everything already there for the Mass.”

Rick is the “music minister” at the house, playing hymns from mp4 files.

“You resonate with the early Christian who were being persecuted and had to do these things behind closed doors,” Rick Vanden Boom said. “It’s not like anyone is coming and looking for us; we don’t feel that way. But we don’t say anything to anybody that is not in that group. So we are very appreciative when we come back for the summer, never missing a chance to attend as many daily Masses as we can and go to adoration every Sunday. When you can’t receive the Eucharist, it’s funny, you realize how you took it for granted. It’s something we will never do again.”

The family says recent communication efforts by the Archdiocese of Detroit, including Detroit Catholic and “52 Sundays,” have been indispensable in staying connected to the Church in southeast Michigan. The family reads the St. Aloysius bulletin every week and are yearlong registered parishioners and contributors to the parish.

The couple are huge fans of Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s 2017 pastoral letter “Unleash the Gospel,” which called for a missionary reorganization of the archdiocese.

“’Unleash the Gospel’ really touched our hearts,” Rick Vanden Boom said. “We have a few copies of the original pastoral letter, the nice glossy one with all the photos. It calls everyone to re-examine the role you have in your faith and how you are evangelizing and how we are all growing in witness to each other and people. That’s been the huge thing about moving here.

“It’s illegal to practice Christianity (in Saudi Arabia), technically punishable by death, but they don’t do that anymore, they don’t care as much,” Rick Vanden Boom added. “You have to be hidden about it. We thought this was going to be a big challenge for us. But with COVID, it helped with more parishes and the diocese putting everything online.”

Living in Saudi Arabia for most of the year encouraged the Vanden Booms to dedicate themselves to St. Aloysius full-time, watching the parish’s livestream Mass whenever possible and rooting themselves in the community.

“Even though St. Al’s doesn’t have a ton of young families yet, it feels like that is coming soon,” Corey Vanden Booms said. “Having that connection with people who have the same faith, ideas and wants is great.”

Even though the family can only be at their home parish for a few weeks in the year, they are already integral members of the community, Rick said, noting how many parishioners congratulated Zeke on his first Communion as the family joined the parish for pizza and bocce ball after Mass.

“Having a church, a community that really is truly dedicated and cares about us is great,” Rick Vanden Boom said. 

Raising a family of young believers in Saudi Arabia a world away still presents its challenges. But in the heart of Jeddah, Rick and Corey have created their own outpost of the Archdiocese of Detroit, a small corner of the St. Aloysius community, giving their children an education that is truly unique and and awe-inspiringly authentic.

“We are very grateful that we’re part of the Archdiocese of Detroit, and it’s taking an active role in re-identifying itself,” Rick Vanden Boom said. “When we moved over there, we knew it would be different. But the places we’ve seen as a family, the Hagia Sophia, the House of Mary, the Basilica of St. John, where it is believed Mary lived out her last years, one of the last seven churches in the Book of Revelation, it’s truly an amazing experience.

“And we are grateful every Sunday in the summer when we get to go to church,” Rick added, “and grateful for all the resources that keep us connected to the church year-round. It’s truly been great to be part of this family.”