Like many families with young children, John and Gretchen Kenney are counting down the days to Christmas with an Advent calendar. Their 2-year-old daughter, Honour, delights in placing a different character of the Nativity on the calendar every day as they wait for the coming of the Christ child.
The Kenney family has a new Advent tradition this year — attending the Advent Family Gathering at their parish, St. Clare of Assisi in Ellisville. While Gretchen and her mother, Karen Szydlowski, have been parishioners there for 15 years, this was the first time the three generations attended the gathering, held the first Sunday evening of Advent as a way to bring together the parish family to kick off the season of Advent.
“This is the first year she can really participate and understand what’s going on,” Gretchen Kenney said, as she watched her daughter race over to pastor Father Christopher Martin to tell him all about her Thanksgiving. “This sounded like something she would really enjoy.”
The Advent Family Gathering has been a 25-year tradition at St. Clare. It originated as storytime for families in church under the leadership of former pastor Msgr. Richard Hanneke.
“The priest would read books in church, and afterward we would have treats in the gathering space and ornaments for the families to take home,” said pastoral associate Sheila Trani. For the past decade or so, the gathering has moved to the cafeteria and now includes a meal, storytelling, some kind of Advent activity — and a healthy dose of catechesis, to boot.
In the past, families have been given Advent calendars and special prayers, Trani said. One year, families made Advent wreaths to take home with them. “It’s really a time to sit and reflect on what they’re going to do during Advent,” she said. “That to me has always been the cornerstone of it. We take for granted that all families know of things to do for Advent. I remember as a young parent getting Catholic Digest, and seeing of all these beautiful things to do. It’s all learning and sharing faith together.”
Father Martin said helping families to grow in their faith is essential. “Since the family is the first place that Jesus entered the world, it’s our duty to help families receive Him into their homes at Christmas,” he said.
This year, Father Martin hosted an Advent trivia game, followed by a reading of Matt Maher’s “The Advent of Christmas,” by associate pastor Father Andrew Auer. Father Auer peppered the children with questions and little lessons as he made his way through the story.
“Why is the evergreen always green?” he asked them as he pointed to the Advent wreath in the book.
“Because it stays green all the time,” one child responded.
“That’s a lot like God’s love for us,” Father Auer explained. “His love never changes.”
Shaina Guntli, who was hired in January as director of evangelization, said the gathering is a way to help build upon the parish community, among people of all ages. “It’s come as you are — we don’t care what age. It’s really kept that community fellowship going.”
This was the first time that Marge G’Sell and her son, Ray, attended. The G’Sell family has been going to Mass at St. Clare for the past year after moving from Eureka and recently became registered members. When she contacted St. Clare, G’Sell, whose son has autism, said she wanted to connect with other families with children who have special needs. She was connected with Leslie Berry, who has a daughter, Erin, with special needs, and they all sat together at the dinner. Berry also is part of a special needs committee at St. Clare.
“This isn’t just for families with young children,” G’Sell observed of the evening, which drew about 100 people. “This is such a great way to meet others — and it was nice that I didn’t have to cook.”
Later in December, parishioners will go Christmas caroling in the neighborhood and hand out information on upcoming events at the parish. Other planned activities include a parish mission with Father Paul Hoesing, vice-rector for formation at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary; a scriptural Rosary on weekday mornings; an Advent by Candlelight gathering for women led by Father James Mason, president-rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary; a Reconciliation service; and a breakfast with St. Nicholas.
Beyond Advent, Guntli noted that the parish recently hosted Alpha, an 11-week series exploring the basics of the faith. She shared a story about how a parishioner invited her sister-in-law, who was unsure about her faith, to attend the program. “Now they’re going to go to Christmas Mass together, and she wants to do more things with us and invite her family to come with her,” she said.
Next month, St. Clare plans to launch a new podcast, The Catholic Arsonist. “The word that people like to use is that we’re on fire here,” Guntli said. “People say good stuff is happening, you can just feel it in all the events and the people. People are excited to be here.”