OMRO — In August 2020, the Diocese of Green Bay’s launched “Reconnect to Inspire” for parishes within the diocese. “Reconnect Groups: Rebuilding community after pandemic” was an opportunity to bring people back together in small groups and help them reconnect to the church and community during the coronavirus pandemic.
St. Mary Churches — as the linked parishes in Omro and Winneconne are called — provided training sessions for their volunteer facilitators and created a script for them to invite participants. After organizers personally invited people to participate, about 100 registered for the four-week program.
“It was offered to everyone, not just parishioners and Catholics,” said Rose Unser, St. Mary Churches’ pastoral associate. “It was a great opportunity to evangelize within our community and demonstrate the great things that the Catholic Church is doing out of love for Jesus.”
Funding for the sessions was made possible through the Bishop’s Appeal.
“Through this pandemic, we’ve really been reaching out and connecting with our communities and bringing hope and healing into the world, and I know the Bishop’s Appeal makes a lot of that happen for us and we’re very grateful,” said Unser.
Fifteen volunteers led small groups, both in-person and virtually. Some met at churches with surround sound for seniors and enough space for social distancing, while others gathered at their home or at parks. The discussions followed weekly themes — “Loss and Encouragement,” “New Beginnings,” “Accompanied By Others” and “Accompanied By Jesus” — as well as Scripture reflection and prayer.
Afterward, through survey feedback, participants said that the sessions helped them to recognize more clearly how God has been active during the pandemic. Sharing their experiences also made many feel more at peace, and new friends were made.
“A lot of people shared their stories, the struggles they were having, how they were feeling lonely and, at times, there were even some tears,” said Unser, who led two virtual groups. “It really did help people rise again because they were feeling connected and loved and (that) they weren’t alone. It gave them hope.”
Unser said the parishes had many activities taking place before the pandemic. “Then COVID happened and everything slowed down,” she added. “Reconnect gave people the courage to continue to connect and find safe ways to be the hands and feet of Christ.”
People from the group sessions volunteered to make phone calls to those who were over 75, participated in “Rock the Village” outreach (fall cleanup around the community), helped at the Winneconne Thrift and Gift store or at the Day By Day Warming Shelter in Oshkosh. Some found their way back to church.
In response to the success of Reconnect to Inspire, there was a collaborative effort on behalf of the parish staff, empowered by Franciscan Sr. Pam Biehl, pastoral leader, to pursue creative ways to bring Jesus to the community through technology. This included video messages to parishioners from Sr. Pam, an online adult faith formation Bible study and faith formation for families, virtual choir participation and prayer experiences as well as livestream Masses.
“The Parish Life and Evangelization Mission Team (led by Julianne Stanz) has provided mentoring through their ‘Parish Life Line,’ which gave us the courage to get on board with all the technology that we had to learn,” said Unser.
The Parish Life Line meets virtually every Wednesday morning from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.
“They’re also going to be helping us with our third Leadership Summit in February, where members from the mission team will provide formation to leaders, council members and some volunteers within our parishes on the habits of missionary discipleship and the discipleship pathways,” added Unser.
The Leadership Summit was held Feb. 16 in Winneconne and Feb. 22 in Omro.
The two St. Mary parishes have also taken advantage of the Bishop’s Appeal resources to establish Parish Mission Planning goals, offer adult faith formation video study groups (including Metanoia, Alpha and The Search), and collaborate with the diocese on the Leadership Summit.
“The timing for Reconnect to Inspire was perfect in August, but if parishes haven’t rolled out the Reconnect experience yet, I still think it would be very impactful for communities or parishes to offer the experience within their communities,” said Unser. “It helps people process what they’ve been going through and it allows them to identify and articulate how God’s been present.”
Parishes interested in learning more about “Reconnect Groups: Rebuilding community after pandemic,” can visit bit.ly/Reconnect2inspire.