Collaboration and community Advent retreat unites rural parishes in Clinton County

Religious education students process toward the altar at St. Patrick Church in Delmar carrying pinecones, berries and other adornments for an Advent wreath during a multi-parish Advent retreat last month. Evangelization team member Sally VanDeWalle, right, helps assemble the Advent wreath.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

DELMAR — Families from five parishes gathered in the pews at St. Patrick Church last month to kick off the Advent season as a community.

Younger religious education students processed toward the altar carrying pinecones, berries and candles to add to an Advent wreath. Older students and parish leaders took turns reading Scripture and sharing Advent lessons. After the retreat, guests walked down the street to enjoy a soup supper at Grossman Hall.

“To see them all participating and smiling, knowing they are part of the (larger) Catholic Church — that’s what you want them to know and believe and feel,” said Chris Meyer, a retreat organizer and a lifelong member of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish in Lost Nation.


For the past three years, the Lost Nation parish has collaborated with a four-parish cluster in north central Clinton County to host the Advent retreat. The cluster consists of Assumption & St. Patrick-Charlotte, St. Patrick-Delmar, Immaculate Conception-Petersville and Ss. Mary & Joseph-Sugar Creek.

Collaboration and community is essential to ensuring the small parishes thrive, said Meyer. She belongs to a multi-parish evangelization committee, formed after then-pastor Father Francis Odoom attended the diocesan Vision 20/20 convocation at St. Ambrose University in 2019. The group meets monthly and includes members of all five parishes. “We start with Lectio Divina, and then talk about what each of us can do in our parishes,” she said. They explore ways to encourage inactive members to return to Mass, welcome new members, help current members feel welcome, and invite area Catholics to attend Mass at any of the parishes.

“We have very enthusiastic and energetic evangelization and religious education team members who come together and do great things for our cluster,” said Father Bob Cloos, pastor of the five parishes. “We are blessed to have so many faith filled leaders in our communities.”

Meyer has observed growth in the parishes since the committee’s creation. People are more likely to engage in parish life when they feel a sense of community. Events like the Advent retreat help members of different parishes to form relationships, she said. “It’s been so eye-opening, just being together and helping each other hang on. We’re all (in) such small, little places. We’re stretched out far and yet we get together and do things as a cluster.” Delmar, the largest town in the cluster, has a population of 542, according to the 2020 census.

The Advent retreat required multi-generational participation from all parishes, she said. Evangelization team members prepared the program and assisted with the retreat. Each parish’s choir rehearsed songs to sing as a combined group at the retreat. 

Religious education teachers Kristin Bowman (Lost Nation) and Katie Roling-Johnson (Charlotte, Delmar, Petersville and Sugar Creek) delegated roles and made sure youths were ready for the big event. “The kids stepped up and did their job, paying attention and being in the moment,” Meyer observed.

Local Knights of Columbus provided soup for the reception and parishioners brought dessert. About 100 people participated and Meyer is grateful to the families who made the trip in chilly weather. “I know it’s a challenge on a school night to bring kids,” she said.

Guests of all ages seemed to enjoy the retreat, which focused on the history and tradition of the Advent wreath. A 90-year-old parishioner from the Delmar parish told Meyer, “I learned things that I had never heard before!” The parishes also host an annual Lenten retreat. 

Roling-Johnson said she received many grateful messages from parents after she thanked them for participating in the Advent retreat. They appreciated the community-building aspect as well as the lessons on Catholic Advent traditions. “It was interesting to listen to the meaning of everything,” a parent told her. Youth participants, including Roling-Johnson’s children, said they enjoyed participating and spending time with their families. Her favorite part of the event was seeing everyone working together.

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