Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed LangloisRebbecca Staudenraus and Lily Woodworth urge the Burr family — Allison, 3-year-old Sadi and Andrew — to attend a St. Patrick Party after Mass at St. Anne, Grants Pass.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Rebbecca Staudenraus and Lily Woodworth urge the Burr family — Allison, 3-year-old Sadi and Andrew — to attend a St. Patrick Party after Mass at St. Anne, Grants Pass.
MEDFORD — Southern Oregon, where billboards once called the pope the antichrist, is now home to a vibrant Catholic evangelization.  Mass attendance is up. Youth ministry is expanding. Catholic social media use is on the rise. Non-Catholics are coming to parishes for retreats and book groups.   

The progress is not by chance. Parishes in the region, bound by isolation, cooperate more than in any other part of the Archdiocese of Portland. And the Southern Oregon Vicariate has put a priority on evangelizing, with parishes offering retreats, classes and Bible studies to prepare Catholics to share faith. Along the way, parishioners have formed deeper relationships, fueling evangelization.

“When you build community, you build energy,” says Paul Murphy, a member of Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland. “If you try to evangelize on your own, that is intimidating. But if you are part of a group of 20 people, that’s encouraging.”

Because it has a head start, Southern Oregon was chosen to test a possible Archdiocese of Portland evangelization training program.

“We are becoming more comfortable about saying, ‘Yeah, I’m a Catholic and there is something good about that,’” says Maureen Swift, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Medford.  

Still, Catholicism is not front and center in everyone’s mind here. A group of youths sitting in front of a coffee shop in downtown Grants Pass say they have never heard of a Catholic Church in their town. Down the street, a former Catholic says she left the parish years ago because “church was no fun.”

Parishes are intent on improving their welcome. Pat Ryan and Betty Charbonneau, greeters on Saturday evenings at St. Anne in Grants Pass, call out to people walking by on the street and hug anyone who seems amenable.  

In Central Point, a new house of worship has human greeters at the front door, but itself speaks welcome. Large screens project the words of prayers and songs so no one need feel lost.

In Ashland, a new banner proclaims welcome. In Medford, signs advertising the parish Facebook page are posted over the holy water fonts.

Pastors in southern Oregon are in their 40s and are tech savvy. Father Holtzinger sends out podcasts and is now working on developing videos. Father Ken Sampson in Medford has energized social media and Father Angelo Te in Ashland is strengthening an outreach to students at Southern Oregon University.

Father Mike Walker, pastor of Shepherd of the Valley in Central Point, has a degree in marketing and created a manual on evangelization. He says research finds that music, message and welcome are three keys to sharing faith.

Parishes need not re-invent the wheel when devising a plan for evangelizing, says the priest, who has been handing out copies of the book, Rebuilt, which gleans wisdom for Catholics from mega-churches and successful business leaders.   

“When people step through the door, they can’t be scared away,” Father Walker says.

The plan has worked. Once Father Walker organized Hispanic ministry to evangelize, for example, the Spanish speaking population at the parish increased from 100 to 700.

Father Justus Alaeto, parochial vicar in Central Point and soon to move to Medford, says the parishes in the region have succeeded in turning the focus outward. Priests and lay ministers have increased their visits to the sick and homebound. A men’s book study at Shepherd of the Valley has become a key part of evangelizing. Held twice per week, it draws about 40 men of all faiths or none. Catholics bring their sons who are not practicing Catholics.

“Men usually talk about superficial things,” says Terry Marks, a retired police officer who started the sessions. “But not at book study.”

“Ardor is in our church,” says Joyce Marks, who is married to Terry and is pastoral associate at Shepherd of the Valley. “Embers are burning. That open welcoming spirit is the most important thing a church can have.”
Parishes in Southern Oregon tend to have committees devoted expressly to evangelizing.

Dawna McGill, leader of the evangelization group in Medford, says adult faith formation sessions, Bible studies and retreats have made the parish “ripe” to begin the work of the New Evangelization, an effort to re-propose Christianity to those who have rejected or forgotten it.

“Evangelization starts with sharing faith with your community,” McGill says.

David Staudenraus leads the team in Grants Pass. On the way from his crew are welcome packets for newcomers. He does not want to overwhelm anyone, but does want them to get information and meet at least one longtime parishioner.    

“Welcome home Catholics” campaigns are common at Christmas and Easter in Southern Oregon, with ads in the local newspapers.

Sylvia Stephenson, who helped coordinate a recent faith sharing series, returned to the church through a “welcome back” program in Medford and then gained confidence and staying power when she attended continuing faith formation sessions. Those who return may not stay long unless they have high quality training to take advantage of, Stephenson says.

Parishes in the region have frequent, if not round-the-clock, eucharistic adoration. That deep prayer has given a new depth to spirituality and made people more willing to share faith, says Dr. Earl Parrish, a member of the pastoral council in Ashland.   

Southern Oregon parishes have lively youth ministry. The congregations cooperate to increase numbers at events, creating more buzz on social media which in turn boosts numbers even more. In Grants Pass, for example, youth group participation has increased by about 50 percent in two years.  

Priests here say finding the right personnel is a key to evangelizing.

“When I hire, I don’t just hire people who are qualified, but people who are also on fire,” says Father Holtzinger.  

There is shoe leather involved in spreading the Gospel. Father José Campos, parochial vicar at St. Anne, regularly went door-to-door in Grants Pass, discussing Catholic life with Hispanic families. Spanish speaking nuns also make the circuit, seeking to counter a trend in which Hispanics are moving to Southern Oregon mega-churches. Pope Francis, the first Latin-American pope, is helping more Hispanics return to their roots, says Father Campos.    

Evangelization can happen anywhere. Father Holtzinger recently went for a haircut. The barber asked about the church’s teaching on contraception, which led the priest to talk about St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body. Another customer in the shop overheard and later joined the church.

In Ashland, known for its Shakespeare festival, a set of retreats — including an appearance by Australian evangelizer Matthew Kelly that drew 750 people — have focused on the presence of the Spirit and the need to be involved in Christian life.

“That has helped enliven things and increased our hospitality,” says Paul Steele, a parishioner and leader of the local Knights of Columbus. “I have seen a spark.”   

Three years ago, retired policeman Greg Atterbury revived his Catholic faith at Sacred Heart. Once he stepped in, he found a welcoming and active community. He met people like Rick Carrara who became “rocks” of faith who keep in touch with phone calls and text messages encouraging continued learning.

Faith formation is the key to sharing faith, Carrara says. “People are becoming stronger Catholics,” he explains. “So when they encounter the world, they love their faith so much they can’t help but share it.”