Parents with young children find much-needed fellowship through spontaneous parish meet-ups

LIVONIA — Couples with young children crave support from other parents. For many Catholic families, finding other Catholics to share like-minded fellowship is important, but not always easy to find. Around the Archdiocese of Detroit, parishes are introducing creative ways to meet that need, which is emphasized in Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel.

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure. Those who fear the Lord enjoy stable friendship, for as they are, so will their neighbors be.”          —Sirach 6:14,17

“Families today face unprecedented challenges, and for this reason our local Church must commit a major portion of her resources to supporting families and helping them live out their call to holiness,” reads the letter.

At St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia, parishioner Amy Yoho leads a Bible study and playgroup that goes by the name “BYOB,” or “Bring Your Own Baby.”

The mothers in the group meet once a week with their children, typically preschool age and younger. After getting the kids settled in with coloring pages and toys, they dive into their study — usually a video series such as Edward Sri’s “A Biblical Walk Through the Mass” or Lighthouse Catholic Media’s “Symbolon: The Catholic Faith Explained.” The group is casual, allowing them the flexibility to pivot as they wish when they have a topic or question they want to explore further at a future gathering.  

Eric Backman, right, one of the organizers for St. Paul on the Lake's family fellowship groups, chats with fellow parishioners during an April gathering.

“So many of us were looking to grow in faith, and when you have other women to walk that journey with you, it’s really special,” Yoho told Detroit Catholic. “Once you step out into the world, you can feel alone. Learning and living the faith together helps us develop relationships with each other.”

BYOB does not provide child care. Sometimes the meetings get noisy when the children are particularly energetic, but no one minds the interruptions. Yoho says the children are learning as well by their moms’ example of making time to pray and study together.

“I think if there are other parishes that are thinking about this, you can keep it simple,” Yoho said. “As long as you’re committed and growing in faith, you don’t need a complicated format.”

Simplicity is also the key for a family fellowship group at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth. After the Sunday 8 a.m. Mass, families with young children enjoy coffee and donuts, then migrate to the parish gym. Parents bring balls, baseball mitts and other gear for the little ones to stretch their legs while their moms and dads catch up.

Parishioner Jessica LaFramboise and her husband started the weekly tradition spontaneously.

“When we were first married, we’d go to Mass, then go home. As we came along in our spiritual lives, we made church a bigger part of our lives, and we want that for our kids,” LaFramboise said. “Now we’re there for a good three hours most Sundays and everyone really looks forward to it. It’s become a wonderful tradition.”

Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny, pastor of St. Paul on the Lake, talks with parishioners during the parish's Friday Family Faith Night in April

Many children in the group are so eager for the fun that they wear shorts and T-shirts under their Mass outfit. They especially enjoy the Sundays when pastor Fr. John Riccardo or associate pastor Fr. Dave Tomaszycki drop by to play catch with them.

LaFramboise says the time and friendship shared with fellow Catholic families is well worth the minimal effort required.  

“You just need baseballs and donuts,” she said.

When Unleash the Gospel was published, the leadership at St. Paul on the Lake Parish in Grosse Pointe Farms felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to respond to Archbishop Vigneron’s call to help strengthen families within the parish.

“Families are at the very heart of our archdiocesan efforts to unleash the Gospel, because they are the first and most important setting in which evangelization takes place,” Unleash the Gospel states.

St. Paul on the Lake now hosts “Family Friday Faith Nights.” The monthly program is open to families with children of all ages and aims to meet couples where they are in their parenting by offering faithful, Catholic, practical inspiration.

Eric Backman and his wife led the effort for Friday Family Faith Nights after their pastor, Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny, asked them to help build up young families in the parish. 

Members of the Knights of Columbus prepare dinner for parish families at St. Paul on the Lake during the parish's monthly family gathering in April.

Each Friday program begins with dinner for the whole family provided by the St. Paul Knights of Columbus, who not only prepare and serve the meal, but set up and clean up as well, allowing parents to relax.  

After dinner, babysitting is provided for younger children in the preschool room, while older kids burn off energy in the gym. Meanwhile, parents are treated to a speaker on topics such as navigating modern media and “The Domestic Church: What Does It Mean and How It Relates to Unleash the Gospel.” Speakers are mostly fellow parishioners, sharing their knowledge and insight with the others.

“It’s great to have a priest or outside speaker — and we have those as well — but when you hear another parent share ideas, you think, ‘I can do that,’” Backman said. 

Backman said the group is still evolving, but the events have been successful thus far. While the group is taking a break for the summer, they plan to resume monthly gatherings in the late summer and early fall.

“I’ve gotten to know people in the parish that I’ve seen at church but never talked with. It makes your church smaller,” Backman said. “We’ve gotten some people who might not come to a Bible study but will come to this. If we can strengthen the family, everything else will fall into place. ”