Newark’s St Francis de Sales grows, even as some churches struggle

A multi-million expansion will help the St Francis de Sales parish, the Catholic church and school, accommodate recent growth and deal with mounting maintenance issues. Of the $3 million campaign goal, $2 million was given by a donor who does not wish to be named and the remaining $1 million will be raised by the parish.

At St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Newark, there’s no lamenting the emptying of pews that has struck many churches across the country.

In fact, it’s the opposite.

Under the Rev. David Sizemore’s guidance, the parish has grown by about 132 families, or 300 people, and is now close to 1,400 registered families. The parish has started a capital campaign to help raise money for a $3 million building expansion project.

The nearby St. Francis de Sales School is flourishing with 13 more students joining this year, said Shannon Karrenbauer, parish business manager.

Before Sizemore became parish priest in the summer of 2017, the parish had lost more than half of its congregants over 12 years, and St. Francis de Sales School had lost a similar number of students, Sizemore said.

Though more Christian and Catholic churches are losing more people than they’re gaining, a new or different priest and a willingness to listen can often help many turn the decline around, said Sister Katarina Schuth, endowed chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Minnesota.

“The way the priest interacts with people is hugely important,” said Schuth, who taught seminarians for more than 25 years and is considered a leading expert in the field. “It just makes all the difference in the world.”

Sizemore, who served for 12 years at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Sunbury before starting in Newark in July 2017, knows how to listen. One of the first things he did, after getting the parish buildings audited to see what needed fixed, was ask parishioners to gather in area houses and chat with him, he said.

Schuth said Sizemore did the first thing on her list of 12 reasons young people might join churches or activities, which is listening to what people in the parish want.

By listening, Sizemore learned that parishioners wanted more variety in worship music, high school and youth ministry opportunities, a mass on Sunday nights and, most importantly, more opportunities to expand their relationship with Christ, he said.

“Parents were growing in faith and kids were growing in faith, and the word started getting out. It’s exciting,” Sizemore said.

The church added several more staff members and volunteers and a variety of programs for men, women, grandparents, couples and young adults. They also started offering Alpha, a program to introduce people to Christianity that even long-time Catholics appreciated, said Tina Burtch, director of faith formation and evangelization at St. Francis de Sales.

Burtch worked with Sizemore at St. John Neumann and credited him for helping that parish community grow as well.

The church leadership is trying to build a culture that is welcoming and is practicing “radical hospitality,” which includes welcoming and greeting members, checking on them during the week, and asking if they can pray for people, Burtch said. “We’re in relationships with not only the Lord, but we’re in relationships with each other, we’re building community.”

She pointed to the parish repairing and expanding its church buildings and school. After a 2017 audit showed lots of backed up maintenance to be done, she said Sizemore led the parish in raising money to cover the cost. They raised $700,000 that went to such improvements as fixing the roofs of the school, preschool and gym and adding new blacktop to the parking lot.

The money also helped to repair the rectory, which had fallen into disrepair. It was condemned by an inspector before Sizemore moved in and then completely refurbished it.

The parish hopes to raise $1 million through its capital campaign, which kicked off in January. That money will be combined with a $2 million donation from a local anonymous contributor.

The project will include tearing down a storage building across from the parish to create more classrooms for the school; expanding the school cafeteria and kitchen; adding staff offices; and building a new faith and family center.

“When the parish grows, the school can grow, too,” said school Principal Sally Mummey. “I think the school was turning a corner even before Father Dave came, but he’s definitely brought this evangelization, reaching all people and calling out to people who are in need of more.”

Sizemore hopes the construction can start this spring.

“I see God’s hands all over it,” he said of the donations that have come in.

Sizemore did not return calls from The Dispatch on Monday seeking comment on whether he thought information on clergy sex abuse released by the Diocese of Columbus on Friday would impact campaign giving.

For more information about the capital campaign or to donate, visit www.stfrancisparish.net or call the parish at 740-345-9874.

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