Winds of change sweep through St. Paul on the Lake as 'Unleash the Gospel' takes root

At St. Paul on the Lake School in Grosse Pointe Farms, students share prayers, tips and ideas for evangelization and other faith-related projects across grade levels. The new focus is part of an all-school and all-parish effort to more deeply live the message of Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron's pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel. (Photos by Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

Parish, school examines everything from prayer practices to school projects to align itself with mission

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — There is something different in the air at St. Paul on the Lake.

It’s more than the falling snow or the brisk breeze off Lake St. Clair. Teachers are more open about sharing Jesus in all classes; students are taught to imitate Christ in the hallways; priests are thinking more deeply their homilies; and families are discerning what it means to be a “domestic church.”

Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s 2017 pastoral letter, called for a changing of course, a reinvention of the “very DNA” of the Archdiocese of Detroit. And for a year and a half, the Grosse Pointe Farms parish has gone all in with the reinvention.

“Since the document came out — even before document came out — we were already talking in our Alpha groups about (Synod 16) and what we could do to really change things around here,” said Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny, pastor of St. Paul on the Lake. “When the document came out, the parish leadership team read it. Then we had the next level of reading as a parish staff. Then it was the larger staff, including school faculty and administrative support people during a retreat at the beginning of the school year.”

The retreat before the 2017-18 school year sparked discussion about what it would take to make St. Paul on the Lake a mission-focused parish, said Anne Graves, evangelization coordinator at St. Paul.

“We started asking ourselves, ‘What is the Holy Spirit asking us to do in response to this letter?’” Graves said. “We talked about what we could do as individuals, as a staff, and what the Holy Spirit is asking each of us in regards to our families and our parish in general. We went through these questions and had discussions at the retreat, which shaped some things we collectively wanted to try.”

St. Paul students show off their Unleash the Gospel projects, which are tacked to bulletin boards throughout the school hallways.

Tangible signs of change

Graves said different groups at the parish, from the Knights of Columbus and parish men’s group to teachers and catechists, began to discern what they were doing and how it might or might not fulfill the mission of Unleash the Gospel.

“Teachers tried some things to build a culture of prayer in the classroom, where prayer would be something they would be more comfortable doing,” Graves said. “The culture of prayer changed in our parish; it was more natural to start meetings with prayer, or on the athletic field, having coaches take five minutes to pray and talk about the Gospels during practice. It was about helping children and parents know that Jesus is beyond the four walls of the church.”

One of the more visible signs of the parish going “all in” for Unleash the Gospel was teachers at St. Paul School having students work on projects to help them discover ways they can live out the Gospel. Bulletin boards throughout the school were set up, “Pinterest style,” displaying the students’ responses to themes of the 10 guideposts of Unleash the Gospel.

The all-school project included each grade watching a short video, reading Scripture or listening to a song related to Unleash the Gospel and writing reflections on a postcard.

“It is a really neat project we did for eight weeks, getting the whole school involved in thinking about Unleash the Gospel and their own perspectives,” said Christy Meyers, a second-grade teacher at St. Paul School. “The goal was to have the students share viewpoints; it was very personal to them, but public in that their answers were shared in the hallways on the board.”

St. Paul on the Lake School has grades paired up for group projects throughout the year. Meyers said the projects between grades has changed the culture of teaching Christ at the school and created continuity between the younger and older grades.

“More people are now talking about the Gospels outside of the classrooms,” Meyers said. “We’re carrying Bible stories into math, science and social studies classes. It’s not a cookie-cutter model, but we’re allowing teachers to really transform our classrooms with Jesus.”

From grades 2 through 8, students have a personal prayer journal to reflect on the homilies each week.

Since the pastoral letter came out, the school has gone from one all-school Mass on Fridays, to a Mass on Tuesdays for kindergarten through fifth grade, and a Mass on Thursdays for grades 6 through 8.

“It changes the culture of the school, makes it more open to talking about Jesus,” Meyers said. “Where faith used to be more private, there is a lot more discussion openly about Jesus as my best friend, and I want to tell you about Him.

“Parents make the conscious choice to send their child to a Catholic school because they want to have faith infused in their child’s education,” Meyers added. “Students need that infusion into their life, heading to high school and life, that Jesus is your companion for making good decisions.”

Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny, pastor of St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms, interacts with students during his homily at school Mass on Oct. 26.

A new vision, a new parish

Just as the school shared with students what Unleash the Gospel calls them to do, Msgr. Halfpenny also introduced the content of the letter to parishioners over a series of 10 weeks.

“We had to acquaint everyone in the parish with the pastoral letter, so that every Sunday Mass for 10 weeks, each priest had put together talking points — either Fr. Tom (Slowinski), Fr. Craig (Marion) or I — would preach on the contents of the document,” Msgr. Halfpenny said.

Msgr. Halfpenny said after parishioners went through Alpha, they wanted something else, so he invited seminarians from the Companions of the Cross religious community to host a one-day workshop on evangelization.

The program led parishioners to request more material related to evangelization, Msgr. Halfpenny said. Since the pastoral letter was released, the parish has hosted a series on “Building the Domestic Church,” in cooperation with the Knights of Columbus. Once a month on a Friday, families are invited to the parish for a meal, and activities are planned for children, with free babysitting provided while parents listen a talk and participate in a discussion on what it means to live the Gospel as a family.

“It’s important for the parish leadership and parishioners not to see this as a ‘one off’ thing,” Msgr. Halfpenny said. “This past fall, when our leadership team got together a year after that initial meeting, we asked about 15 or 20 people from different groups to reflect on the initial questions we asked and share best practices.”

Among some of the better practices was increased collaboration between the school and the parish, coupled with a sense of continuity among the parish’s different ministries, focusing each mission around the central question, “Does what we’re doing bring people closer to Christ?”

“We’re surprised how everyone, from parents and parishioners to teachers and students, have really embraced the heart of the document,” Graves said. “The teaching staff was overjoyed, saying the document was one of the best teaching resources they’ve ever seen. As for parish leadership, they are seeing their ministries in a completely new way.”

Students at St. Paul on the Lake laugh and share with one another during a cross-grade project on Unleash the Gospel at the Grosse Pointe Farms school.

Like a freighter bound for open waters

Only a year and a half into it, Msgr. Halfpenny said it is far too early to measure the results of the recent transformations at the parish — but he shared the parish has received an estimated 100 new registrations since the letter’s release.

However, he is quick to say that the intangibles — not numbers — are the real focus.

“The kinds of conversations we’re having right now are different. We’re talking about what we’re doing in light of the pastoral letter,” Msgr. Halfpenny said. “Catechists and teachers in the program are looking at what they are doing in light of forming disciples first.”

Seismic, life-altering change — “DNA” level change — is often hard to see. Long-term success is built upon small changes that are hard to see, planted by people who wait for years to see the results.

As the winds whip across Lake St. Clair, Msgr. Halfpenny likens the change to one many Grosse Pointers are familiar with — the slow, methodical, but undeniable movement of a large, imposing freighter changing course.

“What we’re doing is like a giant lake freighter,” Msgr. Halfpenny said. “It’s not doing it once and everything changes. You can’t just put the turn signal on, steer the helm and all of a sudden it makes a turn. It takes time to get us off the direction we are going, and onto a new direction.

“There is a lot we need to do differently, but before we do that, we need to listen differently, talk about the things we’re doing different, and ask how what we are doing is going to make an impact down the road,” Msgr. Halfpenny continued.

“Every day, I ask myself, ‘What does the Holy Spirit wants me to say and do, and how do I turn that in a more practical, concrete direction?’ And it all comes back to this answer: helping others hear and listen to Christ better, and to follow Him.”