by Carolyn Kaberline
Special to The Leaven
LAWRENCE — It’s been 156 years since St. John the Evangelist Parish was established here.
Although the church has undergone a lot of changes in those years, one thing has remained the same: the love the people have for their parish.
Never has that been more apparent than when the parish was named “The Best Place of Worship” in this year’s Best of Lawrence voting, edging out a multitude of other churches of all denominations.
“We didn’t even know there was such a category,” said Samantha Romero, director of stewardship and development for the parish, “so we didn’t even know to publicize it to our congregation. We really expected some of the larger evangelical churches to win.”
While the church is well known for its annual Mexican Fiesta and Octoberfest celebrations, Romero believes the church’s popularity comes from more than that.
“What makes St. John’s a great place to worship is we span all demographics,” she said.
“We have a mixture of university deans and professors, doctors, lawyers, dentists, plumbers, janitors, seamstresses — there’s a wide range of people and ages who belong,” said St. John’s pastor Father Jeff Ernst, OFM Cap.
“No matter who you are, you’ll find your home here,” he added.
The diversity of the parish is easy to see in the makeup of the six Masses offered each weekend. There’s a 4:30 Mass on Saturday afternoon and Sunday Masses include a folk Mass at 10:30 a.m., a Spanish Mass at 1 p.m. and a contemporary Mass at 5 p.m. Other Sunday Masses with traditional organ and choir are offered at 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.
“We are definitely diverse in our style of worship,” said Romero. “We have a warm environment and lots of hospitality, but we don’t lose our focus on the liturgy. People feel they can come here and encounter Christ in a real way through the liturgy, the music and the relationships with each other through fellowship.”
With a belief that they need to meet “people where they are at,” confessions are offered for three hours each Wednesday: from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 7 to 8 p.m., with expanded hours during Lent.
Romero also feels the parish prides itself on simplicity and preserving what it has, which also appeals to parishioners. That preservation can be seen in the use of buildings owned by the parish to house church offices, Catholic Charities and the thrift store Rummage House.
Led by Father Ernst and associate pastor Father Barnabas Ichor, OFM Cap., the parish offers 65 ministries to the more than 1100 families that belong to it. Although these ministries offer much variety, social justice is a “big thing,” said Romero. “We have two social justice committees, plus Earth Care.”
One of the social justice committees, Justice Matters, is made up of interfaith volunteers from across Lawrence who are working to obtain a facility for the mentally ill.
“These people are not criminals, but are also not able to function well in society and often end up in jail because of this,” said Father Ernst. “There’s also a focus on the home environment of the city’s children.”
In addition to the two social justice committees, Earth Care focuses on ways to protect God’s creation. The group is currently emphasizing the importance of recycling and is trying to get rid of all Styrofoam containers on the parish premises. A branch of this committee, the Green Committee, also helps keep the buildings green and has won an award for its work.
Perhaps one of the most unique offerings of the parish is St. John’s Café, which not only offers fellowship after Mass, but also the opportunity to ask questions on any topic in an open forum format. St. John’s Café is offered after the 8:30 a.m. Mass opposite the religious education classes.
“Questions are asked with the priest facilitating and bouncing ideas,” Father Ernst explained. “At the end of the session, he clarifies and gives the dogma that goes with the discussion.”
So far, the sessions, which are held September through June, have seen an average of 20 to 30 participants, ranging from 5th grade to people in their 70s each week.
While this may be the first Best of Lawrence award for St. John the Evangelist Church, with its convenient downtown location, friendly atmosphere and programs appealing to a diverse population, it definitely won’t be its last.