Monroe priests hear confessions in public park, hoping to start summertime tradition

Fr. David Burgard, pastor of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Monroe, hears a woman's confession during the Monroe Vicariate's “Priests in the Park” event June 17. The monthly event, which included music and spiritual talks, is a chance for the Church to offer a public witness, organizers say. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Public display of faith a way to show that ‘confession is nothing to be intimidated by’

MONROE — The sun was peeking through the clouds, the birds were chirping, and confessions were being heard at St. Mary’s Park in Monroe on a warm Monday night in June.

Approximately 40 Monroe County residents received the sacrament of reconciliation or enjoyed meaningful conversations over two hours during the Monroe Vicariate’s “Priests in the Park” event, sponsored by the vicariate’s Evangelization and Catechesis Committee. 

From beginning to end, the four priests involved — Fr. David Burgard, pastor of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Monroe; Fr. Giancarlo Ghezzi, PIME, associate pastor of St. Mary; Fr. Bob Singelyn, a priest in residence at St. Mary; and Fr. Jim Rafferty, pastor of St. Mary, Our Lady of the Annunciation in Rockwood — were completely occupied during their hour time slots, listening to confessions, providing practical spiritual guidance and offering absolution from sins.

Fr. Giancarlo Ghezzi, PIME, associate pastor of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Monroe, hears a man's confession during the Monroe Vicariate's “Priests in the Park” event June 17.

It was the second such event for the Monroe Vicariate. In May, Fr. Burgard, Fr. Ghezzi, Fr. Phil Ching, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Monroe, and Fr. Raymond Arwady, pastor of St. John the Baptist in Monroe, offered confessions to approximately 30 people.

“This was a very different and new experience for me. I honestly didn’t know what to expect,” Fr. Burgard said of the May outing. “It ended up being a joyful and beautiful day that I was glad to be a part of. And I was very surprised by the large turnout.”

In addition to confessions, on June 17, the priests were joined by musical duo Nick & Alina and Dynamic Catholic author and speaker Dr. John Wood, who offered entertainment and spiritual inspiration to approximately 200 adults, teens and children gathered at the park.

As the priests were hearing confessions, a team of evangelists from St. Paul Street Evangelization actively sought out conversations about the Catholic faith with curious passersby. 

Families laugh and enjoy time together outside during the monthly event, which included musical duo Nick & Alina and a talk by Catholic author Dr. John Wood.

Nathan Hintz, 22, a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Newport, jumped at the opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation in St. Mary’s Park, which is owned by the city of Monroe.

“I loved that I was able to go to confession in public. This was a great opportunity for people to see how confession is nothing to be intimidated by,” Hintz said. “I think this was a great witness for this sacrament and for our faith.”

The Monroe Vicariate Evangelization and Catechesis Committee drew inspiration for the event from a similar outing hosted in 2017 by Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, which was reported at the time in The Michigan Catholic newspaper.

Organizers were concerned about the weather, but prayers were answered as the rain held off and sunshine broke through the clouds.

A statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus sits nearby a table offering information on the Catholic faith.
A banner with a quote from St. Padre Pio stands next to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“God showed us quite clearly that we can easily fill two hours of confession with a couple priests,” said Kelsey Haener, a member of the vicariate committee and a parishioner at St. Charles Borromeo.

Haener added her team was inspired by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s charge in Unleash the Gospel to “give our community an opportunity to feel freely welcomed by the Church.”

Fellow committee member Nick Farley echoed those sentiments and reflected on what he witnessed.

“I loved seeing the priests in our community sharing themselves and our faith freely to anyone and everyone who wished to meet with them,” said Farley, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Erie. “It’s a beautiful sight, and reminds me of the inviting and loving nature of Jesus. That’s how I’ve come to know him, and it warms my heart to see these opportunities for that same love to be shared with others.”

A woman and a young girl twirl around the lawn as Nick & Alina perform music during the “Priests in the Park” event.

Becky Goins, a member of Divine Grace Parish in Carleton and mother of six, left St. Mary’s Park “energized and refreshed” after the June 17 outing. 

“I loved that it was so family friendly and reached all age groups,” Goins said. “My toddlers loved the music, and my older kids got a great message. It was so nice being visible to the public, showing them that we are alive.”

Ben and Bekah Liedel, St. Joseph, Erie, parishioners, also brought their six children and were impressed by the event. 

“Jesus even fed his people with the Vince’s food truck,” Ben Liedel observed, half-joking.

St. Charles parishioner Marianne Britain added the program “reminded me of the Steubenville retreats that I chaperoned.” 

Nick & Alina strum a guitar and violin as they played songs including “Take This Night,” “Closer” and “The Best Part” during the “Priests in the Park” event.

While confessions were being heard, Nick & Alina took the stage at 6 p.m. and captivated the audience with their original music, heartfelt vocals, and abilities with the guitar and violin. Their songs “Take This Night,” “Closer,” and “The Best Part” moved many in attendance. 

“I honestly started to tear up for their thanksgiving song (“The Best Part”),” Britain said.

After the music ended, Dr. Wood took the stage and drove home a powerful message that resonated with teens and adults in the audience. 

“Each person is called to become a saint,” Dr. Wood said, expounding on the themes of his book, Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Mission. “The world doesn't need another Mother Teresa or John Paul II. It needs you.” 

Dr. John Wood talks with event-goers after giving a talk based on his book, “Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Mission.”

The night ended with the crowd flocking to the Monroe Vicariate and St. Paul Street Evangelization tables that freely offered religious medals, prayer cards, rosaries, and information about the Catholic faith and upcoming events. More than 200 copies of Dr. Wood’s book were distributed, and dozens of T-shirts and copies of Nick & Alina’s album, “Vision,” were provided for free will offerings.

“There were seeds planted,” Ben Liedel said. “Hearts were kindled to discipleship and new ideas will arise from seeing this event happen. This event was the starting point.”

The Monroe Vicariate Evangelization and Catechesis Committee hopes that the “Priests in the Park” event can become a summertime tradition, with one “Priests in the Park” event taking place each month between May and August. 

Joe Boggs is a freelance writer and a member of the Monroe Vicariate Evangelization and Catechesis Committee.