St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima Parish: A Cleveland Success Story
This story is found in: Keep Your Hand on the Plow, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [USCCB] Washington, DC, 1996
St. Agnes, located on Cleveland's east side, was established in 1893 to serve German and Irish immigrants, but towards the middle of the twentieth century, new immigrants from Puerto Rico
moved to the area. Responding to the needs of Spanish speaking Catholics, the diocese established: Our Lady of Fatima parish, under the pastoral leadership of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinitarians). When a further residential shift occurred with the increase of African American parishioners in the 1960s and 1970s, St. Agnes and Our Lady of Fatima were merged, and a new facility was created under the patronage of St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima.
The late archbishop, James Lyke, when he served as auxiliary bishop of Cleveland and vicar for East Cleveland, envisioned fewer churches with dynamic, sizable, self-supporting communities. St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima is the prototype of that vision as it is in the process of being merged with a larger African American parish.
The parish is located in the Hough area of Cleveland, which has undergone several changes since the social upheavals of the 1960s. Among the more significant and hopeful changes is the movement of young, professional families back to the area, attracted by a city program offering residential lots at an attractive price. The increase of these new single-family dwellings augurs well for the Hough district, as well as for the churches and parishes that serve the residents.
Proud of its racial diversity of Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics, there is a strong sense of neighborhood and belonging in the area served by St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima. It is truly an urban mix: of teenagers engaged in football at a park that once housed Cleveland Indians, streets resounding with the laughter of children at play, and elderly and parents sitting on their front porches chatting and greeting passerbys. The parish family of St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima takes pride in being a pastoral and spiritual force in this dynamic neighborhood that has its share of urban challenges and opportunities
Like many inner-city parishes, St. Agnes-Our of Fatima is experiencing a steady growth; to more than 250 parishioners, twenty-six were added last Easter, and among that number were sixteen teenagers who bring their youthful enthusiasm to a vibrant parish.
The parish community celebrates its Sunday liturgy at 10:00 A.M. The hallmark of the liturgy is its participation focused on the central idea that this is a worshiping community bound by love of the Eucharist and one other. To that end, the liturgy involves both song and dance. The entrance procession, for example, is generally followed by the liturgical dance performed by a youth group. Songs are accompanied by an organ, as well as drums and an electric guitar. The church decorations reflect the African American presence, with statues and pictures depicting African American saints and spirituality.
Following the liturgy, the congregation gathers at the parish hall to share food and fellowship. It is not uncommon for many parishioners to spend a good portion of the afternoon in conversation.
Clearly, it is this sense of the freedom to be oneself, the feeling of acceptance and the feeling of “we-ness” that accounts for the sustained growth of the parish family. “This is a family here,” said a sixty-eight-year-old gentleman who recently converted to Catholicism. “Everybody likes it; you won’t find anybody who says different. You’re just accepted for who you are. Everybody is welcomed here.”
There is genuine pride, too, in the way that St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima is held in high esteem by the larger community. The many social and cultural outreach programs have provided services to Hough residents regardless of religious affiliation. The focus of these varied activities is the parish community center, a licensed Catholic Charities Agency established in 1971. Headstart, tutoring, GED classes, and day care are ongoing educational and social programs of the center. The parish Hunger Center, with its daily lunch program for children, and food pantry program for needy families are generously staffed by volunteers from the parish. Once a week the parish family reaches out to and invites the needy to a hot meal prepared and served in the parish hall.
Youth activities abound at St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima. The parish family plays an active role in the lives of its youth. In addition to the two athletic programs for different age groups, there is a genuine concern for the academic performance of the students. Students who have demonstrated academic excellence are recognized at the annual awards banquet, which honors those who have served the church and the community by their academics as well as their athletic prowess.
Clearly one unique outreach program fostered by the parish is the "rectory program" in which the pastor allows chronically truant young men who are at least eighteen years old to live at the rectory while they complete high school. The security, stability, and structure of the rectory have helped several young men reach their goal.
However, the parish family of St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima takes greatest pride in the religious dimension of its youth outreach. Religious instruction for pre-teens is part of the Dismissal Bible School, conducted as part of the Eucharistic liturgy. Before the first reading, the teens are given a blessing and, accompanied by their teachers, are dismissed from the congregation for religious instruction. The fourth Sunday of each month is youth Sunday. At this liturgy, young people serve as lectors, commentators, ushers, and Eucharistic ministers and sing in the choir. While only high school seniors are Eucharistic ministers, younger students may serve in other capacities. The celebration is open to non-Catholics as well and over the years has been a catalyst for sixteen teenagers being baptized during the Easter season. The following scenario is not uncommon: one seventeen year old who was recently baptized first came to St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima to join the basketball team. One day he came early to shoot some baskets ani found other teens doing homework in the "loft," which was once the gallery of the old church. Finding companionship and a good atmosphere for study, he began to come regularly and eventually joined the youth group. As he tells the story, he went to practice early one Sunday so he could go to Mass. After this he went early every Sunday. Ultimately he joined the youth RCIA program a converted to Catholicism.
One of the exciting aspects of St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima parish is its focus on the future, always attentive to that which is possible for growth. Just recently the ministry coordinator -- similar to a parish council -- investigated three new projects: parenting classes for new mothers, integrating the spiritual dynamics of motherhood and the practical aspects of caring for infants; a ministry of support for addictive parishioners; and "Cookies from the Hood," involving volunteer adults and young people in an economic development project.
The parishioners can take rightful pride in their community involvement. As a founding members of “Neighbors Organized Around Housing," the parish is also a member of Hough Area Apartments in Progress and respected by the diocesan pastoral council and the Black advisory board.
Whatever the future may hold for St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima, the parishioners today clearly demonstrate that it is a faith-filled African American community touching the lives around them with gentleness, compassion, and love. Perhaps one of the elders said it best: "Just tell the folks that we're just a bunch of ordinary people who love and care for each other."