Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

gift st patrick 1206 webEileen Dignazio, director of religious education at St. Patrick Parish in Farmington, leads young children in singing “This Little Light of Mine” during a workshop as part of the GIFT program for parishioners. (Photo by Shelley Wolf)

FARMINGTON – In today’s hectic world, “family time” is often reduced to prepping for school, gobbling quick meals and rushing to and from sporting events. For some families, it’s a challenge just to squeeze in that one hour for Mass.

However, 400 members of the Church of St. Patrick in Farmington are choosing to spend their family time on the weekends at a more leisurely pace.

On one Sunday, parishioners of all ages gathered at 2 p.m. at the Sarah Porter Memorial Hall, just down the street from St. Patrick’s, where they dined on wrap sandwiches and caught up on personal news.

Then the youngsters left the dining hall for age-related activity workshops, while the confirmation-age students sat alongside the adults and listened to their pastor, Father Thomas J. Barry, give a 20-minute educational talk about ordinations. During the talk, Father Barry also shared both humorous and moving stories about his own experience as a priest.

These precious hours of family togetherness, parishioner bonding and faith enrichment were made possible through the GIFT program offered by St. Patrick Parish.

GIFT is an acronym for “Generations in Faith Together,” a multi-generational faith formation program developed by John Roberto of Lifelong Faith Associates in Naugatuck, which publishes the curriculum.

“It’s a blended program of faith education for pre-K through high school and adults,” Father Barry explained. “And it’s not just for parents but for all adults in the parish.”

This is Father Barry’s second experience with GIFT. “I started this program at St. John of the Cross in Middlebury and found that it worked,” he said, “so I wanted to try it here.” He introduced the program to St. Patrick’s parishioners in January 2014.

“The question is: Do these programs ever produce more active participation in parish life?” Father Barry asked. “People point to the absence of parents, so it’s an attempt to incorporate parents into the process, but we’re also opening it up to other adults, emphasizing that our parish program is a family effort.”

The GIFT program is a four-year commitment. Participants at St. Patrick are currently in their third year. Each year includes three different “sessions” or talks in the spring and three in the fall. For the convenience of participants, the parish offers three time options – repeating a single session on a Friday night, a Saturday morning and a Sunday afternoon – to accommodate everyone’s personal schedules that particular weekend.

“This way, there’s no excuse for not coming, except for athletics and drama. We just have to go with the flow,” Father Barry said.

Because the hall in the basement of St. Patrick Church is too small to accommodate the program, the parish rents Sarah Porter Memorial Hall from First Church of Christ Congregational. St. Patrick’s also purchases all meals from Gnazzo Food Center, which is owned by a parishioner.

“We have a meal every time we get together to keep the sense of family celebration,” Father Barry said. “That’s been well received.”

According to Father Barry, the hall and meals are all paid for out of the weekly offertory. All meals are served for free by the local Knights of Columbus.

To get the program up and running, Father Barry initially gave all of the talks himself. Eventually, Eileen Dignazio, St. Patrick’s director of religious education, lined up speakers from throughout the archdiocese to help out. Lecture topics cover the sacraments, the saints, the Resurrection and more. Discussion questions – such as “What are the qualities you’d like to see in a pastor?” – spark lively exchanges between participants at each table.

Mrs. Dignazio also develops theme-related activity workshops, grouping the children in grades six through eight, and then those in kindergarten through fifth grade. Take-home materials are provided, and parents are asked to use them to reinforce the presentations.

“The program was designed so that you can’t properly evaluate it until you’ve done three years,” Father Barry said. But even so, he says he and parish ministers are already seeing positive results.

“It not only welcomes people of all ages,” Mrs. Dignazio stressed, “you can’t even explain the dynamics of it.”

According to Mrs. Dignazio, parents with toddlers have been known to save seats for elderly parishioners whose grandchildren live far away. “Here you have parish family becoming family,” she said. “It’s a different dimension.”

At one Sunday gathering, elder participants were seen hugging middle-aged parents as they all said goodbye.

The GIFT program in general has such a reputation that it’s drawing new parishioners to St. Patrick Parish. “Last fall,” Mrs. Dignazio said, “I welcomed 10 new families who live in Farmington Valley and joined the parish because of this program.”

It has also drawn a younger demographic. “GIFT has helped in bringing in younger families,” Father Barry said. “It’s allowed younger families to come with their kids and feel it’s a family event.”

There is also early evidence that the program has deepened parishioners’ faith and commitment. “Based on the response of our parents, they have become more active in their faith. They are reading more about their faith and participating more regularly at Sunday Mass,” Father Barry said. “We have noticed that.”

And the GIFT program is continuing to educate Catholic adults. “In four years, if they participate, they’ll have a better understanding of the faith – not just the kids, but the parents,” Father Barry stressed. “I think the parents need more education in the faith in today’s world.”