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St. Bede’s is the kind of parish all Catholics deserve


My mother has a secret for staying young: She lies about her age. The last time I checked, I believe she was claiming to be younger than I am. Actually, she and Pope John Paul II are the same age, and one thing is certain - they are both survivors.

They’ve managed to tough out a lot of rough times and mean diseases over the years. I never really expected to see my mother or the pope shuffle into the new millennium, and now I’ve seen both.

Five years ago I went flying, in a panic, from Florida to Ohio. Convinced she would never make it through cancer surgery, I thought I would have to arrange her funeral. On my way to the hospital, I stopped at the nearest Catholic church. St. Bede’s is in Mentor-on-the-Lake, a friendly waterfront town. My mother had stopped going to Mass when the church she attended kept sending her letters demanding that she tithe. It embarrassed and angered her. With more than a little trepidation, I drove up to St. Bede, unsure of how my request would be received.

My mission was to inquire about the requirements for a Catholic burial. I need not have worried. Judy Cox, in charge of pastoral care, flung open the door, literally and figuratively. By the time I left, my mother was a registered parishioner, and I felt equipped to handle a funeral liturgy.

As they say on television, “But that’s not all!” Before I could reach my mother’s room, a priest from the parish nearest the hospital had been dispatched to anoint her before surgery.

A good match, my mom and St. Bede - she who prides herself on her English heritage (my family rewrote its lace curtain Irish immigrant history), and the saint considered “the father of English history.” Two things my sister and I learned at Mom’s knee were a love of the written word and the importance of a hospitable home.

We grew up poor. Dirt poor, sometimes. Ohio winters can be especially harsh for those who make their living in construction. My father, a native of Italy, was a carpenter by trade and a host by nature. No one ever came to our house (always the gathering point of family and friends) without being served a “bite to eat.”

“Sit, eat,” he would say, and my mother urged, “Yes, do stay.”

Around the time I was 12, my family embraced Catholicism. As with everything else we did, we did it wholeheartedly. My mother even made up rituals. Like her Good Friday one - she insisted we keep total silence from noon to 3 p.m., for the time Jesus hung on the cross. Never one to waste a good opportunity, that also just happened to be when we did major spring-cleaning (and couldn’t complain about it).

Five decades later, my mother, widowed in her 30s, lives in a subsidized senior apartment building. With all the houses my father built, he never got around to building one for us. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, given the way this story ends.

Enter St. Bede. Unlike the monastic life of its namesake, the parish of St. Bede has hospitality written all over it. I never expected much from them after my mother survived the surgery and went home, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is one place where the ministry never stops.

A one-priest parish with 1,800 registered families, the outreach is extensive. Pastor John Sullivan has empowered lay people to carry on a full range of internal and external ministries. According to staff and parishioners, a lack of arrogance has characterized his pastorate from the beginning. Assisted by a full-time lay liturgist and three deacons, his innovative liturgies and insightful homilies are the norm.

Programs range from prison outreach to quilting bees. Eighteen nurses in the wellness ministry provide health services to the needy and elderly.

From my mother’s hospital discharge to the present, St. Bede Parish has ministered to her spiritual and physical needs. And now, the hospitality has come full circle.

Sunday morning means gathering at “Dolores’ place.” Each week a eucharistic minister comes to her apartment, bringing the Body of Christ and the Sunday newspaper. My mother invites other residents to share in the Communion service. The first Friday of every month, Fr. Sullivan drops by to visit with them.

Holidays are remembered with tokens of the seasons - carolers at Christmas and flowers at Easter. When healing services are scheduled, a transportation minister offers rides to church for those who are able to go.

Three years ago, my mother wrote a letter I will always treasure, thanking me for the best gift I could have given her - St. Bede’s, wrapped in love.

The best part for me is the assurance that when my mother has said goodbye to this world, the doors of St. Bede’s will still be open wide to her. The funeral brunch ministry will provide the kind of hospitality my mom would enjoy. It is with gratitude that I entrust her body and soul to St. Bede - the kind of parish we all wish for and deserve.

Judy Gross writes from Tallahassee, Fla.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000