Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

In the basement of her Philadelphia home, young Denise McMenamin let her imagination run wild. She pretended to be a rodeo star, a caped crusader and a pixie. But she also had higher aspirations. In addition to normal childhood fantasies, McMenamin also pretended to be . . . an altar server. 

In the 1950s and ‘60s, being a female altar server was as out of reach as being a superhero. The only way she could serve was in her imagination. At Mass, she would watch the altar boys and memorize their movements, jealous of the holy gestures they were performing. She fell in love with the ceremony and precision, which she tried to reenact at home. 

It wasn’t until the 1980s that girls were finally permitted to serve. McMenamin never got her chance, but she made sure hundreds of other girls – and boys – did. 

Growing a ministry

For the past 22 years, McMenamin has served as the Altar Server Ministry head at St. Bridget Catholic Church, Richmond. Under her guidance, the ministry has grown exponentially. 

Before McMenamin became involved, youth involvement in the ministry was dwindling. Not many students were volunteering, and there was talk of having adults start filling the open positions. 

As altar serving was McMenamin’s dream as a child, she saw this ministry as uniquely youth-centered. When she offered to help and eventually took over the ministry on a volunteer basis, seemingly small changes were the beginning of a greater transformation.

From the existing one-page altar serving guide sheet grew a manual of detailed instructions and graphics. Children are required to attend at least three two-hour training sessions as well as pass a written test and take part in a commissioning ceremony. 

McMenamin also worked to have the servers be trusted with more duties and responsibilities, something her pastor, Msgr. William Carr, endorsed. Her goal was simple: “I wanted altar serving to be a ministry they could be proud to be a part of. ‘Any job worth doing is worth doing well,’ and this job was for the Lord,” she said.

As a result of her changes, there are now nearly 150 altar servers on the church’s roster.

“One of Denise’s most important gifts is her passionate faith in the Lord and his body, the Church,” said Msgr. Carr. “I think that Denise’s example, not so much the actual training and monitoring, is the lasting gift of her ministry. Through her, people have been touched by the Lord.”

Passion for teaching

McMenamin made it her mission to teach children to not only know the mechanics of the Mass, but the meaning. 

“Not long ago, my husband asked me what I liked most about being Catholic. Without hesitation I said the Mass,” recalled McMenamin. “I love all the good works our Church does. It is central to our faith, but many faiths or even people with no faith do good works. The Mass is uniquely Catholic. For me, it is a place of comfort, strength and gratitude. I hope the kids feel that.”

Aiden Stengel, who was an altar server for seven years and is now a freshman at CNU, does. 

“Altar serving is what shaped my faith and made me so proud to be Catholic. I have her to thank for that,” Stengel said. “I have loved every minute I got to spend with her, and I am so thankful for all the years I have been able to work by her side and see the true love she has for Christ.”

McMenamin is a self-professed perfectionist, which some students found intimidating at first – not because of her personality but because of her level of precision. Soon, however, they understood that her desire for perfection was just the reflection of her respect for the sacredness of the sacrament. 

Megan Pellei, a 20-year-old UVA student, said she appreciated the training McMenamin provided.

“This precision in teaching altar servers shows her love and utmost respect for the celebration of the Eucharist. Now, I am no longer intimidated but recognize how much love and devotion she has for the parish and what a great job she continues to do with training all the new altar servers,” Pellei said. 

Megan’s brother, Danny, an 18-year-old student at Freeman High School, also noted the emphasis on devotion.

“She patiently instructs for hours on end and ensures the trainees fully understand their roles. She is flexible with her schedule and often takes time out of her personal hours to teach new servers and give refresher sessions to the older altar servers,” he said. 

The siblings’ parents, Miho and Steve, have five children, four of whom have been or are currently altar servers. The youngest will be trained next year. 

“We love Denise because she takes her Catholic faith seriously yet can also be fun,” said Miho. “She sets the bar very high and firmly yet gently nudges the servers to ensure their full commitment and best personal performance.”

Grateful for opportunity

McMenamin has decided to step down so she can spend more time with her family who live out of state. A committee of six women, some of whom currently assist her in the ministry, will fill her place. 

“I will be miserable and regret this decision for a while, but I also feel it’s time for others to have the enormous blessing I have been given,” she said.

McMenamin credits the staff at St. Bridget for the program’s success. They have helped her with navigating computer issues, printing various paperwork, looking up records, indulging special music requests and completing a myriad of other tasks. 

She is also grateful to Msgr. Carr, who is the fourth pastor at the parish’s helm since McMenamin started working in the ministry and who has been especially supportive of her mission.

“I have been privileged and blessed and am so incredibly grateful that this is the work that was given to me,” said McMenamin. “There was never enough time to do the job 100%, but I tried my best and hope it gave the children a start in realizing the importance of what they do. I hope it makes them eager to find out more about the Mass, about their faith and what their place is in that faith.”