APPLETON — It may have been the stigma of Dana Carvey’s Saturday Night Live portrayal of The Church Lady, but Angela Carney, who has been a member of St. Mary Parish since she was in high school, never wanted to earn that designation.
“I considered myself ‘the average Catholic.’ I went to church more often than not, paid my dues, maybe I was an usher or a Communion distributor, but I didn’t want to be known as ‘The Church Lady,’” she told The Compass. “I did my thing, but kept a safe distance.”
That all changed in 2016.
“Somebody at St. Mary’s nominated me for parish council,” recalled Carney. “I prayed about it and then said, ‘You can keep my hat in the ring. If this is where I’m being led, that’s what I’m going to allow.’ Lo and behold, I was put on the parish council for three years.”
Carney got involved just as the council was rewriting the parish’s mission and vision statements. “It was a very moving experience,” she said. “Little things started happening that made it all fall into place.”
About the same time, she said, the parish council started reading the book, “Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter,” by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran.
The premise of the book is that Catholic churches can take a page from the playbook of thriving megachurches to bring their parishes back to life — while anchoring their vision in the eucharistic center of the Catholic faith.
“As we kept reading, we got more and more excited about bringing some of these new ways of thinking about church into our parish,” said Carney. “Really focusing on hospitality and making others feel welcome. Going out beyond our four walls and meeting other people. Really striving to become disciples for Christ.”
Corcoran came to St. Mary’s in July of 2019. “He observed all our Masses and gave us tips and direction on where we could make the most impact based on our new mission.”
Rebuilt inspired the parish to move from “maintenance into mission.” Carney explained their new focus.
“As a church, we have kind of been consumer-driven, much like everything else in the United States. We were trying to move into more of a (servant) attitude. But our job is not to serve people like customers; we are here to bring others to God and to live out the beatitudes,” she explained. “‘Rebuilt’ brought us to a new vision, and now we’re just trying to make it happen. There’s a new energy in our church right now.”
In 2019, Carney finished her term on the church council. “I really felt a deeper connection with my parish. It made me want to continue to be involved. Six months before it ended, I started praying. ‘OK, Lord, where do you want me to go next?’”
That led Carney and three other parishioners (Jessica Michels, Annie Geurts and Anne Higgins) to start a Communication Task Force at St. Mary’s to work on the Rebuilt initiative. “The core committee and the senior leadership and the staff were coming up with these ideas and we’re the link to bring it back to the parish.” Emily Jenks, who is a staff member of St. Mary Parish, is now part of the committee as well.
The group communicates with parishioners via Facebook, Instagram, flyers, announcements at church, email blasts, the church bulletin and is even looking at text messaging to reach their youth.
“Before COVID, we were really trying to teach the parish why we needed to do some of these changes,” noted Carney. “Then March came and we came to a screeching halt. We were talking about livestreaming before, but then it became priority number one. We needed to find ways to get our messages out to parishioners because they weren’t coming to church anymore.”
Assuming the pandemic ends in 2021, St. Mary’s plans to continue their mission, including reaching out to students at Lawrence University and to the local prison population and their local mission field.
“Our focus is really on the unchurched and the dechurched (those who’ve left the church),” she said. “Yes, we need to still nurture our current parishioners, but we really need to be about bringing more in, which is discipleship.”
Carney and her husband, David, have twins, Aiden and Adelyn, who are seniors at St. Francis Xavier High School. She intends to help get their new youth ministry program going full swing this coming year. “Because our church is in such crisis, we feel the best way we can go about maintaining the Catholic Church is by keeping our youth engaged and bringing others to the church.”
With the volunteer work she’s doing at St. Mary’s, Carney can now officially call herself “The Church Lady,” but she’s proud to wear that title. “I was an average person; I really didn’t think that was my role, but I just let the Holy Spirit guide me. I was open to the thought of it, and I feel like I’ve found a niche now. I’ve grown into it.”