Have you ever wondered how your parish community came to be or what the first Mass was like? Or maybe you attended a Baptism or Confirmation and tried to imagine how many new members your parish has welcomed over the years. This was never hard for me to do since I was blessed to be present for the first Mass ever celebrated with my parish family. That family is St. Gabriel Catholic Mission in Northern Virginia, and I have been a part of this faith community from its beginning.
A Hunger for the Lord. It all started on a cold yet beautiful Christmas Eve in 2010 when about two hundred people walked through the wintry streets of Manassas Park and filled a local community center. Fr. Juan Puigbo, parochial vicar at All Saints Church in Manassas, had recognized an important need among a growing community of Spanish-speaking parishioners. Many didn’t speak English, and some had no transportation available, but they were longing for a Mass in Spanish. Seeing their hunger, Fr. Juan asked the pastor, Fr. Bob Cilinski, for permission to pull together the resources he needed to celebrate a Spanish-language Christmas Mass.
It was on that night, in the same quiet, powerful way that our Lord had come on the first Christmas, that we also experienced the birth of what would become a new family of faith. The community that gathered felt God’s presence so powerfully that they asked Fr. Bob to help them continue to worship together in Spanish.
The following year, Sunday Masses were offered in Spanish throughout the season of Lent. This time the Masses were celebrated in the gym of that same community center—a much larger space to accommodate all the extra people who had heard about the Masses. People volunteered hundreds of hours to make these Masses possible—people like Roando and Morena Rodriguez and their children. Week after week, the Rodriguez family took it upon themselves to transport the sound system to the gym and to set up the entire worship space: chairs, speakers, candles, an altar, and whatever else was needed for the liturgy.
Contagious Faith. Morena remembers how nervous they were at first but also how God gave them the peace to take on this enormous task. “After praying about it as a family,” she said, “we saw it as a new beginning for our faith journey. Initially, we were worried about making mistakes as we tried to transform the gym into a dignified place of worship in just forty-five minutes every week. But we knew that God was with us and was providing guidance through Fr. Juan and other visiting priests. During that Lent, we learned how to work better as a family. And as we learned about the various liturgical elements and how they were used, the Mass became much more meaningful to us.”
The joyful faith of this new community was contagious. More and more people began looking for ways to help. Even though many of them were working two jobs and were caring for their families without a lot of resources, a large number of volunteers began to come forward. Soon, ministries that served the faith community and beyond began to form. Entire families saw how important they were to this new community, and many of them became ushers, lectors, extraordinary ministers of Communion, cantors, and choir members. Looking back, Morena Rodriguez reflected, “We didn’t know how much the community would grow, but now we see that God used our labor to create something wonderful.” A vibrant community was forming.
The Lenten Masses were so successful that liturgies were permanently scheduled for every Sunday the following year. That made it possible for many other ministries to form, including a prayer group that remains key to the mission, RCIA and other faith-formation programs offered in Spanish, and a food pantry that reaches out to the broader community.
“Why Me?” Raul Garcia was one of the people who joined the first RCIA program. He had signed up only so that he could complete his reception of the sacraments. “When I first went to RCIA,” he recalls, “I learned that I would need to attend the class on a weekly basis. This was a great concern for me because I had a lot of responsibilities. I thought it would be too much. But as I started to learn more about the Lord and my faith and our Church, I began to love it.”
During the process, Raul was transformed not only by God but also by the community that he encountered at St. Gabriel. After completing his sacraments, he continued to attend Sunday Mass and eventually became the RCIA coordinator. He is now active in many other leadership roles in the mission.
But it wasn’t just Raul’s life that was touched; so was his family’s. One of his daughters began to sing in the choir as a small child, and years later she took on the role of pianist and soloist. For many in the community, seeing her grow, not only in her talent, but especially in her faith, has been a powerful illustration of the important role that this community plays in the lives of its members.
“We don’t serve because we feel it is our duty but because of our love for the Lord,” Raul says. He believes that one of the biggest blessings of belonging to the mission is “the growth we have seen in our family. We are part of not only a mission community but a faith family. We know each person in the mission. The connection we have with the other members is real, and it makes a difference. I have sometimes asked myself, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why my family?’ But I have come to realize that it is God who seeks us and wants us to come closer to him.”
You Are the Church. Just as the Garcia family has grown together, many of us in the community have also been moved by the love we feel for God and for our faith community. That love is so strong that it creates an energy and a commitment to bring other people to the faith. And God has blessed our efforts tremendously! Due to our growing numbers at Mass each Sunday, St. Gabriel Mission was officially established in 2017. At that point, we had one Sunday Mass with an average attendance of one thousand people. Now we continue to serve our community with two Masses on Sundays, both of which are filled with people joyfully worshipping the Lord together. And the numbers keep growing.
Many people came to our community by word of mouth or through the personal invitation of friends, family, and neighbors. No matter where new members were on their faith journey when they came to us, their experience of community has brought them closer to God.
Today, God’s love, the love for the Church, and the love for our community continue to engage many who have wanted to center their lives on Christ but didn’t have the means to do so. When priests and other people visit the mission, they see multigenerational families engaged in Sunday Mass. They see many community members happily volunteering and caring for one another and for newer members. And they see an active community that worships, learns, and celebrates together.
Visitors often tell us, “You may not have a brick-and-mortar church, but you are the Church lived out.” When you speak to people in the mission, you realize the powerful effect a community can have on a person’s faith journey. We are all aware that there is much work to do, but we know that we are guided by God as “we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). We know that as we strive to live as one, we can be a part of God’s never-ending search for souls. And we know that just as we rejoice watching God transform lives here on earth, we will one day rejoice in heaven because we have helped each other complete the journey.
Iris Chavez lives in Northern Virginia.
Building a Family of Faith
God calls us to be a family of faith, a community of brothers and sisters who support and uplift each other with the good news of the gospel. But in the United States, almost 75 percent of Catholics do not attend Mass consistently. So how do we reach out to them as the people of St. Gabriel Catholic Mission did? By loving them as Christ loves and by sharing the good news with them.
Every year, The Word Among Us Partners provides parishes with more than one million free pamphlets and booklets that their members can then share with family, friends, and neighbors. These pamphlets proclaim the gospel and encourage readers to come to know the Lord’s love for them.
You can help The Word Among Us Partners reach more Catholics by making a tax-deductible donation online at their secure website, www.waupartners.org. There you can also learn more about Partners and watch short videos on how God is changing lives through your donations. You can also donate by calling 1-888-633-1084 or by mailing a check to:
In the US
The Word Among Us Partners
7115 Guilford Dr Ste 100
Frederick, MD 21704-5234
Box 1107, Station F
Toronto, Ontario M4Y 2T8
(Canadian donations are tax-deductible only if sent to this address.)