In the beautiful “cottage country” of Ontario is a small mission church called St. Anthony of Padua.
Many retirees live within driving distance of the church. Because of its remote location, St. Anthony offers only one Saturday night Mass. But the parish has a vibrant faith formation program that attracts not only the young families who live in town but “cottagers” as well—the name Canadians give to those who escape the city to spend weekends in the quiet of nature.
When she moved there in 1994, Jean Schlicklin-Tyler loved her new parish. But over time, she noticed one problem: there seemed to be a growing gap between the retirees and the young families. “There was a lack of connection between these young families and the elders in our community at the time,” Jean says. The two groups simply had different focuses in life—an all too common situation in many parishes.
By 2005, Jean was busy raising two young kids herself; she too struggled to find a way to build relationships with older parishioners.“There’s another whole world out there in the church community. How do you bridge that?” she wondered.
It seemed like an impossible task. She debated whether a program or meeting between the generations would help. Then one day she realized, “We don’t need more meetings; we just need to pray for one another.” That concept became the foundation of a grassroots ministry to join elder couples or singles together with young families as prayer partners. If they could commit to praying for one another, Jean thought, perhaps new friendships would grow to fill the gap.
Connected by Prayer. Jean first approached the young families in the faith formation program—those who still had kids in school—and asked if they would like to become “Companions on the Journey” by praying for an elder member or couple in the church. Once she had the list of younger families, she asked for elder members who were interested, collected their names, and began the matchup.
One at a time, she and her co-organizer, a friend named Anna, would pick up names and ask the Holy Spirit to match the elders with the younger families. They even created a “Fridge Certificate” with the names of each prayer partner and their respective phone numbers. There was also a space for prayer concerns to be added as each family got to know the needs of the other.
The prayer partnerships officially kicked off at a simple acknowledgment ceremony at Mass one Sunday. Even though the only formal commitment was to pray for the other family, prayer partners started socializing after Mass and during the church’s potluck dinners. Sometimes prayer partners would invite each other over for dinner, e-mail back and forth, or visit the other family’s home. The fruit that grew from these simple prayer relationships was exponential.
Patricia and Andrew Willerding eagerly signed up their young family for Companions on the Journey (COJ). As cottagers, they drove more than an hour to Haliburton almost every weekend to enjoy uninterrupted family time. They liked the faith formation program for the kids at St. Anthony of Padua, but their interaction at Mass with older couples typically consisted of a polite nod. That changed when they were connected with a retired couple, Paul and Sharon Morissette. They started to chat after Mass. Paul and Sharon then invited the Willerdings over for dinner, and their friendship blossomed.
Paul and Sharon soon found that each family had a lot to offer one another. Paul remembers, “As their daughter was making decisions about going to college, we would chat.” In turn, he knew that the Willerdings were praying for him. The ministry also provides a wonderful opportunity for elderly parishioners to interact with children, especially. “Some of the kids aren’t shy at all. They go, ‘How are you? I’m glad you’re feeling better.’ If you’re eighty-five years old and a nine-year-old asks you those questions, it’s pretty nice.”
Finding a Second Family. Paul and Sharon have grown to admire the Willerdings’ commitment to get away each weekend and spend more time together as a nuclear family. Their prayer partnership has taken on special significance because they, like many of their fellow parishioners, live hours away from extended family and grandchildren.
As the years have passed, this “second family” aspect of Companions on the Journey has had a touching impact. For example, when a parishioner named Janet* passed away, her children wondered, “Who will be her pallbearers?” They hardly knew enough people in the area to fill the roles needed for her funeral Mass.
That’s when they remembered that their mom had become friends with Jean Schlicklin-Tyler’s family through the church’s prayer partner ministry. Jean, her husband, Godfrey, and their kids had gotten to know Janet well over the years and felt honored to be invited to be part of her Mass of Resurrection. On the day of Janet’s funeral, Godfrey was one of her pallbearers, and their daughter took the day off from school to be an altar server.
Jean and Godfrey’s new prayer partner is a woman named Lorraine, whose husband suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to sharing meals with her to relieve any loneliness she might feel, they have gone with her to visit him at the home where he is being cared for.
The Ripple Effect. Through Companions on the Journey, relationships have been created between people who would not have even met otherwise. Warm greetings now echo across the pews in church each week. Jean chuckles as she sees some of the “young families” join the ranks of “elders” now that their kids have grown up.
Peggy Flowers, the current COJ coordinator at St. Anthony’s, is excited to keep the program running strong because of all the fruit it bears. Even though not all prayer partners become close friends, the majority of the relationships are causing a ripple effect in their parish and their community. Some partnered families have met each other’s friends and families. Almost all have become more involved in each other’s lives in unexpected and wonderful ways.
The simple act of connecting two families in a prayer relationship reaches across the social divide and creates friendships. It cements generations and creates parish family units for people whose families might live elsewhere. It lifts up the lonely and gives hope for the future to those who are feeling disengaged from younger generations. Most important, it spreads the gifts and graces that come from regular prayer for each other.
*Name has been changed.
Patty Whelpley and her husband, John, live in Vienna, Virginia.