Ed Langlois/Catholic SentinelFr. Jeff Meeuwsen leads scripture reflection during a break. The teens are sitting in the back of his pickup. 

Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Fr. Jeff Meeuwsen leads scripture reflection during a break. The teens are sitting in the back of his pickup. 

ALOHA — They woke at dawn, gathered to pray the liturgy of the hours and attended Mass. After a simple breakfast came work — cleaning pews, trimming shrubs, gardening, organizing donations, painting. After a few hours it was back for more prayer, a meal in common, more work, prayer again. Around 9 p.m., they turned in.  

Trappist monks? Nope. Teenagers. 

Before school started, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish here invited its youths to dedicate four days to living monastically while helping the parish get spruced up. 

Amazingly, about 20 teens said yes. 

Jessica Nickerson, a 15-year-old student at Century High School, hesitated to join. But it turned out to be fun. 

“I met so many more people,” Jessica said. “I didn’t even know they went to the same Mass I go to.” Olivia Delplanche, a 14-year-old Valley Catholic student, found the first hours nerve-wracking, but is glad she came. 

Both girls take new ownership in their parish. They painted a room and will remember their effort when they walk by it in the years ahead. They also helped with a garage sale to fund a building project for the booming church. 

Teens come from all kinds of families — Hispanic, Filipino, Anglo, Vietnamese. One parent or two parents. Big house or small apartment. 

“Kids don’t know that they like to work and they don’t know they like to pray. We are going to help them,” said Deacon Jesús Espinoza, pastoral associate at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. “At the end of the day, they don’t want to go home.”  

During a recent work session, Father Jeff Meeuwsen was in jeans, t-shirt and sun hat, directing a young crew in pruning trees and bushes. Pastor in Aloha for more than a year, he grew up on a Washington County farm and knows which end of the pitchfork to use. 

Once an hour, Father Meeuwsen takes his workers into the shade and they pray briefly. The teens swig water and seem to cherish the break.     

“It is interesting how they can complain about the heat in the morning, but all of a sudden if you give them a soccer ball at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, they don’t want to stop — in the sun,” the young priest teases. “It’s incredible.” The teens smile and roll their eyes.

The priest heard about the youth sessions while he was studying canon law in Rome. They are called Ora et Labora, Latin for prayer and work. The motto comes from Benedictine life.  

“The purpose is to have the kids learn that working and praying go together,” says Espinoza. “They see prayer as rest, which is ideal.”

Father Meeuwsen observes the youths bonding, even though they go to a half dozen different high schools. As they become college age, he hopes to take them on mission trips overseas. “We can say, ‘Hey this is what the church does for home and for away.’” 

The August project included a field trip to the Grotto, where the youths heard from the Servite friars and attended Mass. In the fall session, the group will go to the Benedictines’ Mount Angel Abbey, home field for ora et labora. It was St. Benedict who made the motto famous 1,500 years ago. 

Parish volunteers provide lunch and the Knights of Columbus make dinner. Adults seem captivated by the industrious youths.  

“I have been totally impressed by their willingness and their good nature,” says Sally Perry, a parishioner who has worked with the young people at all three sessions. 

Sandi Campos, director of religious education at the parish, says Ora et Labora has been good for everyone. The worshipers who come to 8 a.m. Eucharist seem delighted that a crew of teenagers has already been at prayer for an hour.