Pastoral Coordinator Leads Georgia Mission's Growth

Posted: 12/31/2013

Pastoral coordinator Susan Sweet (second from right) with Cuthbert, Ga., mission members.Susan Sweet served for 10 years (2002-12) as pastoral associate at Glenmary's Aberdeen, Miss., mission before that parish was returned to the Jackson diocese for continued pastoral care. She says she was delighted and thankful to God when Glenmary offered her the pastoral coordinator position at one of its newest missions—St. Luke in Cuthbert, Ga., located in Randolph County—starting in January 2013.

Looking back now, she says that "I'm still excited about the potential here, and I feel like we've accomplished a lot so far!"

As the first full-time, resident pastoral leader at this South Georgia mission, Susan was enthusiastically welcomed by mission members and other county residents—including the Methodist minister, who invited her to join the ecumenical, interracial ministerial alliance.

She is also responsible for outreach in neighboring Stewart and Quitman counties, where there is no Catholic presence. Father John Brown, who pastors the new Glenmary mission 30 miles away in Blakely, Ga. (Early County), serves as sacramental minister in Cuthbert, celebrating Mass each Saturday.

The two missions were staffed for many years by the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity before the diocese asked Glenmary to assume responsibility. The previous, elderly pastor, who lived in Blakely, traveled to Cuthbert once a week for Mass and provided sacramental ministry. But he was not able to minister to the mission community in other ways.

Today, the Cuthbert mission has about 25 registered members: the Anglo majority—about 18 adults (mostly older), three teenagers, two young children—and two bilingual Latino adults. The small congregation has gradually grown and become more diverse in the last year, partly thanks to Susan's and parishioners' efforts to invite area Catholics, who comprise fewer than 1 percent of Randolph County's population.

"When I arrived," says Susan, "I quickly found mission members were hungry for a more close-knit community and for faith formation. So those became our top priorities. They promptly volunteered to organize a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper before Lent, open to everyone. The turnout was small, but we got to know one another better."

After the first two Lenten Saturday liturgies, Susan made simple suppers for them. But mission members stepped forward to prepare group meals for the remaining Saturdays in Lent. And ever since, the congregation has gathered for monthly covered dish suppers, sometimes for special feasts or celebrations—such as a send-off for a young woman heading to college.

The parish also holds "town hall" meetings now, as need­ed, "to give each of our members a voice," she says.

"I admire their desire to grow and change."

She makes time for one-on-one ministries, too, such as her almost-weekly visits to an elderly, homebound couple to whom she brings Holy Communion. Thanks to her, they now feel like valued mission members.

Susan is gradually encouraging and preparing members to take on more responsibility and leadership within the mission. One new parishioner, for example, has started a music ministry.

To meet the congregation's desire for religious education, the mission leader has initiated a variety of ongoing faith formation efforts—mostly intergenerational. Just recently, she offered a weekly, well-received "Rediscovering Catholicism" program. "We shared our ideas and learned to trust each other," Susan says. In early 2014, she'll begin leading a lectionary studies program. Meanwhile, she's helping a couple with their sacramental preparation for the baptism of their two young children.

Susan is also striving to be an example of involvement and leadership in the county community, while inviting St. Luke members to participate whenever possible. Her active role in the ministerial alliance is a prime example.

"The alliance assists and advises people seeking help," she says. She and parishioners have joined in alliance-sponsored ecumenical prayer services, such as one for the National Day of Prayer, where Susan led a prayer.

The St. Luke congregation is now reaching out to the larger community, in a county where 28 percent live below national poverty level. "We have few financial resources," she says, "but we can still be models of Christian living."

For instance, they give whatever they can to the ecumenical food pantry, housed at the local Baptist church. And one parishioner is a longtime pantry volunteer.

In addition, with the assistance of its new "adopting" diocesan parish in North Carolina (see Winter 2013 Glenmary Challenge, page 11), the mission is taking on other outreach efforts—such as providing warm clothes and blankets for the local elderly. Susan thinks that the North Carolina congregation, because of its resources and generosity, will be a catalyst for mission members' future outreach. "Working with them will help us see ourselves as disciples in the community," she says.

She also hopes the mission can help improve race relations in the county, which is 62 percent African American. "We'll participate in this year's Martin Luther King Day observance," says Susan, "and we'll reach out in other ways, too, such as through the ministerial alliance."

Her vision for the future is that "with God's help, we'll keep building up our Catholic faith community and will become leaders in outreach to our neighbors, especially those in spiritual and material need."

This article first appeared in the January 2014 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.