St. Malachy pastor on growing attendance: 'Evangelization is hard work, but it works'

Fr. Joe Gembala, pastor of St. Malachy Parish in Sterling Heights, greets parishioners outside the church before Sunday Mass in early March. Fr. Gembala credits a new spirit of innovation and evangelization at the parish with giving him and his parish staff the courage to try new things. With bigger crowds for Sunday Mass, it appears to be working, he said. (Photos by Matthew Rich | Special to Detroit Catholic)

'I think about how the apostles would do it,' Fr. Gembala says of parish's strategy to unleash the Gospel

STERLING HEIGHTS — It’s about 7:15 a.m. on a cold Sunday morning in February in Sterling Heights. It’s still dark. People walk through the parking lot to St. Malachy Catholic Church for 7:30 Mass. As they approach the doors, there’s a bundled-up Fr. Joe Gembala, standing outside, greeting them, “Good morning!”

The gregarious pastor watches as, one after another, people walk inside, filling the pews for Mass before many others are out of bed.

It wasn’t always this way. Fr. Gembala wasn’t always this way.

A little more than five years ago, at 7:30 a.m. Mass, as well as the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass, and the other Sunday Masses (9:30 and 11:30 a.m.), there were about half as many people. There were two stations for Communion. The parish was getting ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary, when Fr. Gembala says it hit him. 

“It’s time to evangelize,” he said.

Fr. Eduardo Montemayor, SOLT, associate director of evangelization for the Archdiocese of Detroit at the time, gave Fr. Gembala a folder with some ideas. Some were as simple as making people feel better about being at Mass, such as greeting them outside, no matter the weather. 

“I think of how the apostles would do it,” Fr. Gembala said. “You really have to want folks to come. It makes people feel better. It can do no harm.”

Fr. Joe Gembala shakes hands with parishioners as they leave the church following Sunday Mass. He makes it a point to greet each person — even if that means standing outside in bad weather.

Masses include upbeat music, and Fr. Gembala's homilies are also upbeat, with interesting stories.

On this particular Sunday morning, Fr. Gembala told parishioners about how, along with the other priests of the archdiocese, he had been invited to a meeting with Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, who didn't let on what the meeting was about. 

Finally, when everyone was there, the archbishop asked the priests what Bible passage best described their faith. As the archbishop went around the room, many told familiar passages, as Fr. Gembala thought hard. Finally, when it came to him, he replied, “Jonah 2:10. ‘And the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.’” 

As others in the room looked at him quizzically, Fr. Gembala told of how he had once received a call to anoint someone at Beaumont Hospital in Troy, at about 4 p.m. The drive — right through rush hour — meant he’d hit practically every light. By the time he arrived, there was no place to park. 

Finally arriving and anointing the sick person, Fr. Gembala then began the slow trek home. Nearly arriving back at the rectory, he received another sick call from Beaumont.

“No, I just anointed that person,” Fr. Gembala recalled telling the person on the other end of the line. “No,” the person responded. “This is a different person who needs to be anointed.” 

So he turned around and made the slow trek back to the hospital.

Fr. Gembala's point? Some days you feel like the whale, being commanded by the Lord to vomit onto the shore for someone’s behalf. But if you keep your faith in the Lord, there will be better days, much better days, ahead, he said.

Fr. Gembala preaches during a full Mass at St. Malachy, one result of a more robust focus on intentional discipleship and evangelization, the longtime pastor says.

The noticeable changes at St. Malachy have attracted people in large numbers. The church is full for all of its Masses. It’s one of the only churches in the community with three Sunday Masses, including one as early as 7:30 a.m. Now, there are three stations for Communion. 

“Fr. Joe is on fire,” said Gordon Peck, parish evangelization coordinator. “He’s more alive than he used to be. His homilies are so well crafted. He’s put a lot of effort into his homilies. When he’s speaking to (catechism) classes, he crafts a special homily for them. The Holy Spirit is alive and well in Fr. Joe.”

While the choice of music and attitude adjustment have made a big difference, the church also places a huge emphasis on evangelization programs. 

St. Malachy offers a slew of events, with one seemingly going on every day. In January, the church launched The Case for Jesus, a five-part video presentation on the scriptural and historical evidence for Christ. It was a big hit. 

“Twenty seven people came out to see it when it was -15 degrees,” Peck said.

Fr. Gembala smiles outside on a sunny but chilly late winter morning.

In April, the church is offering Journey to Joy — three one-act plays on Palm Sunday weekend focusing on the Gospel — followed by David the King in May and June, and the parish's annual Summerfest in August. There’s also Light of the World retreats, movie nights, holy hours, Eucharistic processions, first Friday devotions and much more. 

“One of our biggest problems is finding space for all of these programs,” Peck said. 

The church also boasts a very active youth ministry. “We’ve seen people leave for college, come back and marry someone from the parish,” Peck said.

Fr. Gembala insists that all of the wide-ranging evangelization programs be free to attendees, letting people know the variety of ways the Holy Spirit can reach them. 

“You have to let people know all the ways that Jesus loves them,” Fr. Gembala said. 

Fr. Gembala leads worship during Sunday Mass at St. Malachy. 

“Evangelization is hard work, but it works,” he continued. “I didn’t reinvent the wheel. I tell people from other parishes who are interested in doing this to be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked. The energy comes from the results. You have to stand out there in the rain, and the snow, and the polar vortex, but it works.”