Father Joe Goldsmith and Deacon Bob Straub alternate giving the homily in Spanish and English, respectively, during the Sunday, Feb. 23 cluster Mass at St. James, Hopewell.

Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

A background as a chemical engineer might not be considered an asset for a priest who is administrator of a three-parish cluster, but, according to Father Joe Goldsmith, chemistry is important when that priest is working to instill collaboration among the members of those parishes. 

Father Goldsmith is administrator of St. James the Greater, Hopewell; Sacred Heart, Prince George; and St. John Nepomucene, Dinwiddie. More than an hour before celebrating an all-cluster Mass — the only Sunday Mass in the cluster on Feb. 23 — he walked around the square-block St. James campus and spoke about collaboration in the cluster. 

“I’m a chemical engineer by background, and one of the principles in chemistry is either a catalyst or an activating agent, so you can have all the right chemicals in there,” he explained, “But it takes one little seed of something just to kind of ignite and stir the pot, and then all of the other forces start happening.”

He was quick to add that none of that would work if parish lay leadership, parishioners and the Holy Spirit weren’t part of the mix. 

After coming to the cluster two years ago, Father Goldsmith, a priest for eight years, conducted a survey among the parishioners. 

“I asked, ‘If there is one thing we’re going to do in common, what will it be?’ Well, Mass was the number one response; 147 people said, ‘Mass,’” he said.

From there came meetings of parish councils, development of a cluster council and planning to celebrate one all-cluster Mass in each of the parishes once each year. Last September, as part of the festival at Sacred Heart, Mass was celebrated on a baseball field. 

“I said, ‘I want the altar on home plate,’ so we set it up that way,” he said with a laugh.

Another Mass is planned for May at St. John. 

Communication, collaboration

The cluster’s Diversified Parish Council (DPC), with two members from each parish, was established in 2016 by then-pastor Father Chris Hess. It dissolved in May 2018 when Father Hess was given a different assignment. Father Goldsmith reestablished it in May 2019 with six members from each parish.

“His desire was to establish a team that could help with visioning for all three parishes and to unite the community,” according to Sam Jones III, chairman of the DPC. “Father Joe personally called all members, inviting them to participate in this important ministry.”

Members of the three parishes who will receive the sacrament of confirmation this spring process into church at the offertory. (Photos/Brian T. Olszewski)

Jones said the primary purpose of the DPC was communication and collaboration among the three parishes so that it would be “a productive advisory council for parish needs.”

He noted that within the first nine months, the DPC had participated in a family function seminar and leadership seminar, conducted the survey, scheduled DPC and parish council meetings and agreed to plan the cluster Masses.

“None of this would have been possible without the extraordinary leadership and vision given to us by Father Joe,” he said.

Justin George, a St. James parishioner and member of the cluster evangelization team, has seen the value in what his pastor has done.

“The cluster helps us share resources, to work together,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing for all of us.” 

‘Sweetness’

Father Goldsmith said that during his first two weekends of getting to know the members of each parish he sensed what he termed “sweetness.”

“There was a different energy, a different vibe, a different spirit of prayer. What a gift for me; what a treasure for me to be able to be connected to the parishes,” he said.

Above: Choir members from each of the cluster parishes joined to provide the music for the Mass. Below: More than 350 people attended the celebration. (Photos/Brian T. Olszewski)

The priest said that collaboration is an important principle.

“In any parish, you have an overlap of endless ministries. And more folks are starting to ask, ‘What is our sense of collaboration?’ because all of those ministries are united in what the work of the Gospel is,” he said. “Or it is just the invitation to come closer and to know the Lord in relationships and to trust that God wants to meet you right here and right now in your life and to give that little push to whatever the next step might be.”

Valerie May, a member of Sacred Heart who was involved in the planning of the September cluster Mass, likes the collaboration of the parishes.

“I like it because I like that we get to meet people from the other parishes,” she said. “It just brings everybody together and makes it more like a family.”

Establishing relationships

While Jones praises the priest for getting the collaboration going among the parishes, Father Goldsmith noted Jones was persistent in that regard.

“He was on my case for a year: ‘We need to do this.’ ‘What’s going on?’ ‘We haven’t made a motion,’” the priest said. “And it was the end of my first year at the parish. I said, ‘Alright, Sam. It’s time to go ahead, OK?’” 

Father Goldsmith said that the key to getting to that point was “relationship.” He had gotten to know the people in the parishes and could invite them to be a part of what he envisioned.

“The context of relationship is freeing, empowering. If you’re just looking at this like it’s Sunday business, I don’t have that kind of training and that mindset,” he said. “But if we’re talking about people, oh, I get that. Because people have moms and have grandmoms, and people have kids. So then you start talking: How do we love each other? How do we pray together? How do we have some fun together?”

While parishioners give Father Goldsmith credit for the collaborative mindset of the parishes, he said he and they did it together.

“The relationality of it and the fact that we’re learning each other’s names, that we’re in dialogue with each other, that we’re taking seriously into account each other’s opinions, I think there’s a movement of the Holy Spirit in that level there,” he said, terming relationality “an essential component” in what the parishes are doing. 

Come together

With 350 families at St. James, 600 at Sacred Heart and 100 at St. John, Father Goldsmith said it is not possible to always bring everyone together for one Mass. 

“But at certain times, in strategic ways, you do want to come together,” he said. “So, it seems to me that the challenge is as old as it is new: Can we come together at certain moments and pray and care about one another?”

That caring, the priest said, comes from people being “interested and curious” about making each other’s parish successful.

“Then just that little bit of a push could really bring energy and positivity and create a different sense that we’re not competing with each other. I think that we really are, we should be, mutually supporting each other,” Father Goldsmith said.

Father Joe Goldsmith blesses the parish center at St. James Parish following Mass on Sunday, Feb. 23. The former school is used for offices, faith formation classes and social gatherings in the newly renovated dining area. (Photo/Brian T. Olszewski)

Volunteers give cluster a gathering space

In addition to celebrating Mass as a cluster on Sunday, Feb. 23, members of the three parishes celebrated the renovation of the former St. James School cafeteria into a social hall. It was done because a group of parishioners contributed $20,000 worth of volunteer labor to gut and restore the room to use.

Carolos Martinez, a St. James parishioner who oversaw the project, said he was moved to help because of the welcome the Hispanic community had received from the pastor, Father Joe Goldsmith.

“He let us use the church, and we had Mass in Spanish,” he said. “The main thing was that we did a favor for a favor.”

Martinez heard stories from people in their 70s and 80s who had been students at the school and who were excited about the possibility of the cafeteria being functional again. 

A crew of volunteers led by Carlos Martinez worked weekends and multiple nights over six months to gut and renovate the former school cafeteria into a St. James Parish gathering space. The group committed $20,000 in labor to the project. (Photo courtesy of St. James Parish)

“That gave me more energy to do this work,” he said.

Martinez said he accepted the leadership role after he was able to get others on board.

“I said, ‘I can’t do it if my community doesn’t help me. I can’t do it myself,’” he said. “But everyone, every weekend for six months, some at night, too, but every Saturday and Sunday we’d be here because we like to use this (space), too.”

Martinez and the volunteers were recognized at the cluster Mass and received framed certificates acknowledging their gift of time and talent to the community.

“People are using it,” he said. “That’s exciting. It makes me happy.” 

Following Mass and blessing of the building, members of the three cluster parishes gathered for a potluck dinner in the newly renovated gathering space. (Photo/Brian T. Olszewski)

Prior to blessing the facility, Father Joe Goldsmith, administrator of the cluster, said the hall is a resource for the parishes.

“We’re excited today because we’re blessing this renovated space — space that hasn’t been touched in 15 years,” he said.

— Brian T. Olszewski