DE PERE — Like many young adults, Katie Summers started drifting away from the church while in college. “I wasn’t enthused about going to church,” said Summers, 25. “I was just in this kind of doubtful mindset and was starting to kind of lose faith in the institution, I guess.”
By her senior year at St. Norbert College, where she graduated in 2015 with a teaching certificate and bachelor’s degree in English literature, Summers was already reconnecting with her childhood faith. She began looking for a place to worship that met her schedule and fed her soul.
“After I graduated, I was going to St. Bernard Parish (in Green Bay),” she said. “They have a Sunday night Mass with a contemporary worship band and that’s a huge draw for me.” It didn’t quite fit her schedule, so she began attending Saturday evening Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes in De Pere.
“It was really convenient for me and I fell in love with Fr. Tim,” she said about Norbertine Fr. Tim Shillcox, who is now pastor at Resurrection Parish in Allouez. “He spoke to me and reached me where I was at, as a young adult, and so I just continued to go every Saturday. The first step was realizing that I wanted to make a difference and not just sit in the pew. I started getting involved, I started lectoring and Communion distributing and that’s when I started meeting friends here.”
The experience of acceptance in a parish community had a strong impact on Summers, who was hired as a language arts and reading teacher at Notre Dame Middle School in De Pere in the fall of 2015. “I know part of being a young adult is having that doubt and going through that,” she said. “Fr. Tim kind of brought that faith in the institution back to me, too.”
He also modeled a welcoming church.
“It was really intriguing to me that Fr. Tim was welcoming to everyone,” said Summers. “I just felt like this church really wasn’t turning people away based on where they were on their journey.”
She even recruited her parents, Bob and Mary Summers, who live in Wrightstown, and her aunt and uncle, Sue and Bob Ruonavarra, to join Our Lady of Lourdes. “So now we go as a big family and it’s kind of refreshing coming here. It’s like a social event sometimes, because I get to see my friends, too, and we can celebrate Mass together,” Summers said.
Last summer, she was asked to join the parish pastoral council and one of her goals is to welcome other young adults and young families to the worshipping community. “I want to see other young adults in our church, because most of my church friends are older than my parents,” she said.
Some of the ideas being floated include adding a Mass aimed at young adults. “Maybe a night Mass, having more contemporary or upbeat music or led by young adults,” said Summers, who is a member of Crosswalk, a praise and worship band that began at St. Mary Parish in Appleton.
The hospitality committee, of which she is a member, recently started offering juice, coffee and cookies after Mass, which is a big attraction for young adults, she said.
“At St. Norbert, they talk a lot about commuio (a Latin phrase the college describes as “the ideal of a community united as one, grounded in the Christian understanding of God as Trinity”) and part of that is like sharing food together and being a community, so that is a mindset coming here,” she said. “If we can break bread together at Mass and after Mass, that’s kind of a cool community, neighborly thing.”
Summers teaches religion to sixth graders at Notre Dame Middle School and it’s given her greater appreciation for her faith, as well as a strong desire to pass it on to the next generation.
“Middle schoolers ask really hard questions and it has forced me to study up on my faith and really learn why we do what we do,” she said. “Their questions inspire me to just learn more and it’s really cool sharing our faith together. We are a generation apart, but they have this wonder about God, this child-like innocence about our faith.”
This makes it even more crucial for her parish, as well as other parishes, to do whatever they can to reconnect with young adults who have strayed from the church, she said.
“I don’t want our parish to die, and if we don’t’ start recruiting young people, like my generation and the next generation, then there isn’t going to be a Catholic Church anymore and that’s really scary to me,” she said. “I take my faith very seriously and it’s important to me. I just feel like if we don’t’ have young adults to step up now, then it’s going to just fizzle out.”
Summers said her role in reaching out and welcoming young adults to church is also personal.
“I want to see my children and grandchildren in the pews at Our Lady of Lourdes,” she said. “If we don’t start recruiting and retaining young adults and young families, that dream won’t be possible.”