January 7, 2013 | Volume 88, Number 5
Father Robert Cole, pastor of St. John the Apostle Church, near the entrance to the building.
St. John the Apostle, Virginia Beach: A strong Catholic identity with close ties to school
In the beginning, a small gathering of faithful in St. John the Apostle Parish in Virginia Beach pulled together their parish mission statement in 1990, when all they had was some land and a rectory.
Mass was first celebrated in a public school and at St. Simon Chapel of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia during the summer until the church was built in 1995.
Additions were made in 2002, and another expansion made most recently in 2011, in order to better serve the close to 2,800 families that attend this vibrant parish near Sandbridge, just five miles in from the coast.
Father Robert Cole, in his fourth year as pastor, has overseen both the growth of the parish from 1,900 families to its current size and a renovation in 2011, which added an updated and expanded parish office and meeting spaces.
He also made it a priority to revitalize the church sanctuary, which included the acquisition of several statues, and two new altars from a parish in Scranton, PA which had been closed.
Shelton Clough, chair of the parish council said, “I love the ever-increasing holiness of the worship space. Father Rob has done a very nice job of making additions to the interior worship space.”
Another recent addition is the mural painting in the narthex of the “Lion of Judah.” Artist Sam Welty has taken the original “Lion of Judah” painting by Michael Dudash and created a version with specifications that make it particular to the St. John the Apostle parish community. The image, which faces the altar, is designed to match and mirror it. Welty also added an eagle, a symbol of their patron, St. John the Apostle, perched on the throne by the shoulder of Jesus.
Father Cole gives a blessing to students in the classroom. With him is seminarian Matt Kiehl.
The “Lion of Judah” mural embodies the qualities of Christ’s strength, majesty, sovereignty, courage, peace and surety, and it is the last thing most parishioners see when leaving the church.
St. John the Apostle has a Knights of Columbus Council, with men who are involved in serving both the parish and the school. One cannot talk about the parish without mentioning the school which is connected with the parish not only financially, but spiritually and socially as well.
Being connected with a school is his favorite part of being a member of St. John the Apostle parish, Mr. Clough, who became a Catholic in 2004, admitted.
“One of the big influences in my conversion was because I sent my kids, at the time in first and third grade, to SJA when it first opened,” he said, adding that it’s exciting that the school is raising the next generation of Catholic leaders.
Marilyn Ertel, Director of Development and Marketing at the school, said there are currently 271 students enrolled from Kindergarten to 8th grade, and 16 children in the Little Rays preschool program.
Ms. Ertel’s three children have gone through the school, and she is committed to the vision of the school which is primarily “giving these children the skills, academics and moral fortitude to succeed in this society.”
The school has recently been able to equip each classroom with a smartboard.
First Sunday of Advent Mass.
The Catholic identity of the school permeates all aspects of students’ academic and social experience during their time at St. John the Apostle. Father Rob frequently teaches classes and makes the sacrament of Reconciliation available any time a student requests it. He celebrates Mass for the school every Wednesday.
The student prayer partner program is essential to fellowship within the school. Older students are paired with younger students; there are a variety of activities they do together, including prayer, sitting together at Mass and mentoring from the older students to their younger partners.
The school is family-oriented, with an apparent student-staff-parent triangle present. Shawna Costanza, who has sent her children to SJA since kindergarten, deeply appreciates the time Father Rob takes with the children in coming into the school to teach them about the Catholic faith, and the Mass in particular.
“Weekly school Mass is a vital part of their education,” she said. “That’s the reason we go to this school.”
In addition to the school, there are 600 children enrolled in the parish’s K-8 Faith Formation program, which is offered in two different sessions due to the high number of students. There are over 100 volunteers who teach or assist with the program.
John Domingo, Director of Religious Education at SJA for the past eight years, spoke about an innovative program for children.
“A few years ago, we started the ‘Children of Light’ program which is a special catechetical ministry toward children with special needs and their families,” Mr. Domingo said.
“Margo Perry, a retired school psychologist, was the inspiration for the ministry which has prepared children for the sacraments, and also addressed issues of inclusion of children within our program,” he added.
Brenda and Chris Wheeler and their sons Christopher and Charlie, with Dolf and Justin Hart, enjoying coffee and donuts after Mass. Every first Sunday is “Donut Sunday” at SJA, to encourage fellowship and socialization after Mass.
There are two sessions for RCIA each year, starting in the Fall and in the Spring. There are now 29 in the inquiry classes, including catechumens, candidates, and baptized Catholics who have not celebrated Eucharist or Confirmation. There is also a separate Adult Confirmation process for those who have celebrated First Eucharist but have not been confirmed.
St. John the Apostle offers ample adult education opportunities, including numerous Bible studies during the week. Some involve as many as 40 to 50 participants. The parish has had successful participation in viewings of The Catholicism Project by Father Robert Barron, with about 70 participating this past summer, and 90 during the Fall session.
“Christ Renews His Parish,” a program under Deacon Vern Krajeski, has emphasized evangelization and plugged people into various ministries and adult formation opportunities.
CRHP has touched the lives of almost 500 parishioners at St. John’s since it was introduced a few years ago. It has sent teams to establish the same program at St. Gregory the Great in Virginia Beach and St. Joan of Arc in Yorktown.
Parishioner Bill Dora is grateful to Deacon Vern for introducing the CRHP program to SJA, as he said “It has been very conducive to learning more about the Liturgy and building community in the parish.”
Another opportunity for adult faith formation is the “Ask the Clergy” nights every other month. A talk is given on the chosen topic, and then Father Rob, along with Deacon Vern Krajeski, Deacon Joseph Grillo, and Deacon Vincent Kapral, sit on a panel to answer general questions.
St. John’s youth minister, Kohl Glau, oversees a program which encourages youth to participate in various parish ministries.
An average of 45 teens participates in the weekly youth nights, with about 10-15 who participate in annual or semi-annual events such as retreats and mission trips. Mr. Glau has said the opportunities for youth to do missionary work is one of his goals, as these trips “seem to have a really strong impact on the youth, even if they only go once out of their four years in high school.”
From left, Anita Collins, Ellen Markham, and Christina Echevarria volunteering
in the parish gift shop before Mass.
Opportunities for mission work include summer work trips to West Virginia, helping seniors with yard work, housework, and other manual labor beyond their capabilities. Teens can participate in the Corporal Acts of Mercy team, which meets about every two months to prepare sandwiches and drinks for the homeless.
Other opportunities include trips to Honduras with the Missioners of Christ or twinning programs with a parish in Haiti.
Because St. John the Apostle is not located on a bus line, there is no food pantry, but parishioners collect food and send it to Star of the Sea parish and St. Michael Lutheran Church to distribute to the needy. The parish also collaborates with six other churches to provide resources for families who need assistance with electrical and utility bills.
With a parish family of this size, it’s not surprising there are more than 70 ministries. The 28-page parish ministry guide describes them all, including Ministry of Mothers Sharing, or MOMS, Homebound Ministry, Legion of Mary, and Seniors’ Group, just to name a few.
Many parishioners say that one of the reasons they enjoy St. John’s is because there truly is a niche for each person.
Parishioner Lori Wilson describes the parish as “Very energetic and active.”
Dave Roddy, member of the Knights of Columbus, agrees. Asked to define the parish in a word, he said “Camaraderie.”
“All the ministries are inclusive and the community involvement is the spirit of the parish,” he said. “It’s one big happy family.