APPLETON — Growing In Faith Together, based in the Fox Cities, has the ideal acronym — GIFT. The committee, which represents 13-plus parishes, is a gift for Catholics in the Fox Cities and beyond as they work together to host various speakers and events at venues throughout the area.
The organization started some 50 years ago at St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton. Their mission is to “provide spiritual growth opportunities to our Catholic community by offering inspirational programs to awaken, enrich and enliven the Christ within us.”
“Two (religious) sisters from St. Thomas More Parish wanted a group that would involve all the parishes in Appleton,” said committee member Patricia Verbrick. “They had the vision of having the parishes work together for adult education. Not courses, but individual presentations.”
“The biggest impetus of us doing this is it’s very difficult for a small parish to get good speakers. We needed to have something to supplement what we have in our parishes,” said Maurine Overesch, who is one of the representatives on the committee from Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Appleton.
With the addition of parishes from Neenah and Menasha, the initiative has been reinvigorated. “When I became involved in GIFT, they were at seven parishes, and over the last two years they’ve grown to 13,” said Verbrick, a member of St. Thomas More Parish.
Reaching out to a larger base of Catholics gets more people to events, but also makes it more cost-effective to host one, the members agreed. “Especially an event that one parish could not financially host,” noted Colleen Sargent-Day, who belongs to St. Patrick Parish in Menasha and works for St. Bernard Parish in Appleton. “Collectively, we chip in to bring in Catholic speakers, like Steve Ray or Matthew Kelly. We’ve brought in some big names.”
Since they now have the ability to livestream events, even with the COVID-19 pandemic, in the last year they’ve seen solid attendance at their events — both in-person and online. Last September, GIFT hosted its largest event yet. Franciscan Fr. Albert Haase conducted a two-day presentation called “Hearing the Voice of God in Your Life” at St. Patrick Church in Menasha.
“We’ve been trying to respond to the need for people to be valued and cherished,” said Debbie Spielbauer of St. John/St. Mary in Menasha. “A lot of our speakers have helped them to have that connection and that relationship to God. When we were isolated (during the pandemic), that was really rough on a lot of people, but the event at St. Pat’s provided real consolation and community for people after being separated so long.”
For Lent this year, the group is sponsoring a discussion on the Stations of the Cross, led by Norbertine Fr. James Nielson, assistant professor of art and special advisor to the president for mission integration at St. Norbert College in De Pere. The program takes place the evenings of Sunday to Tuesday, March 6-8, at St. Thomas More in Appleton.
On Dec. 9, 2022, St. Therese Parish will be hosting Advent by Candlelight. In between those presentations, GIFT is looking at offering other events for local Catholics, including a painting class at a local paint and sip franchise and Pietra Fitness, a stretching and strengthening exercise class that integrates Christian prayer into a workout with a goal to develop strength of mind, body and soul.
Each parish in Appleton, Neenah and Menasha has at least one representative on the GIFT committee. “Our group is eclectic because we bring different gifts to the table,” said Sargent-Day, who, as a parish business administrator, knows the ins and outs of grant writing.
“Judy Simon (St. Pius X Parish) has a background in bookkeeping, so she’s our accountant and she’s doing some adult education,” said Sargent-Day. “Patricia is a music minister. When we’re putting on a presentation, she’s going to make sure there’s music in the background or we’ve got a piano player in church. We all bring different gifts.”
Willa Mueller of Sacred Heart Parish oversees the social media, added Overesch. “She’s working on the website. We’re going to advertise for everybody in our area, not just GIFT, so all Catholics can go to our website and be opened up to the wealth of what our church has to offer,” she said.
GIFT is establishing collaborative relationships with other groups in the Fox Valley, such as CIA-Faith Mission Operatives, Catholic youth and young adult ministries, and St. Francis Xavier High School in Appleton and St. Mary Catholic High School in Neenah.
“We’re trying to get people from throughout the Fox Valley and beyond to learn more about the faith and grow deeper in their faith,” said Sargent-Day. “And form a personal relationship with Jesus,” Verbrick added.
The work GIFT does putting on events is making a noticeable difference in people’s lives, the group leaders said.
As the pastoral leader at St. Thomas More Parish, Deacon Lincoln Wood supports the GIFT initiative. “GIFT is just what the name says, it’s a gift,” he said. “It allows parishes to cooperate in forming adult disciples, which makes us all stronger and builds the ties that bind us together as Catholics.”