Founded in 1968, St. Helen Parish has a bustling parish community with young and older members participating in ministries such as Cornerstone retreat and faith renewal (evangelization) committee. This illustration is used on note cards printed by the parish.
The church building, completed in 1972, provides a supportive worship environment for the parish's 3,500 families. The parish center, constructed in 1984, was expanded in 1988 and named after the founding pastor, Rev. Msgr. Thomas Meaney. It provides office space for clergy and lay staff, meeting space and includes a gymnasium.
Over the years, the programming for education and social outreach has diversified and includes elementary, middle school/Confirmation and youth ministry programs. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd will bring together three and four-year-olds. Small faith-sharing groups for divorced and separated Catholics, opportunities for individual and spiritual direction, as well as other faith development and retreat opportunities enrich the faith life of St. Helen's faithful.
The parish, along with Holy Trinity (Westfield) and Our Lady of Lourdes (Mountainside), supports and sponsors a growing Catholic elementary school using facilities at Holy Trinity and Our Lady of Lourdes.
The parish community has benefited from its many staff members—clergy and lay who have given their energy and talents to support the growth of the faith community under Msgr. Meaney until 1990, Rev. Msgr. James A. Burke until 2000 and Rev. Msgr. William Harms, the current pastor.
Central to the parish spirit has been the continuing commitment of parishioners to give real meaning to its mission: "We are committed to bringing the Good News to others in our community and beyond. United in prayer, we understand that it is our calling to use our time, treasure and talent for the benefit of all."
"Over the past 38 years, the parish has grown to 3,500 families. The parishioners are a caring and loving community who have adopted the 'Stewardship Way of Life.' As a community, they share their financial resources whenever asked. This is a community whose middle name is 'give.' The spirit permeates to the teens and elementary school children," Msgr. Harms explained.
Last year, the school children donated $3,000 to purchase new school desks for a school outside Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. The parish is home to the "Church ladies"—the women of the Centering Prayer group who visit inmates at East Jersey State Prison (see The Catholic Advocate, March 22, 2006).
With ministries including a spiritual life committee, faith renewal committee and Hurricane Katrina coordinating committee, the parish is a hub of activity and encourages new members and longtime parishioners to participate.
A group of youth volunteers help create Thanksgiving baskets for the less fortunate. There are over 100 young people directly involved in the parish youth group. The group participates in Habitat for Humanity, peer ministry and retreats.
Adele Gatens, a senior citizen, has been a parishioner for many years. "I adore this parish and it is a magnificent place to worship," she said. "St. Helen's is warm and expressive, in terms of its mission."
A former Catholic school teacher, Gatens moved away from the area, but still made an effort to attend St. Helen's because it was "worth the trip. The sermons are beautiful and never disappoint. I feel that I am at home here."
A lector and Eucharistic minister, Gatens has close ties to the parish. "(Former pastor Msgr. Burke) married my son and at one time, I gave a Mother's Day talk to the women in the parish. I was honored to be one of the speakers. I had always listened to the young mothers and was amazed that they wanted to hear from me."
Msgr. Harms, according to Gatens, is "a hoot" and was a welcomed addition to the St. Helen Parish family. "I remember the Mass were he was initiated and we were all wondering who would continue after Msgr. Burke. I just heard this loud and booming voice and it seemed to be speaking to me. He is a brilliant man. He is erudite. I feel fortunate to have such lovely speakers at our parish. They are all different and exceptional."
Busy writing her life story for her children, Gaten intends to focus a few chapters on her parish life. "St. Helen's is so much a part of my life. My husband asked if we should move to the South; I told him there is no way I can make it to St. Helen Parish every Sunday so I am not going," she said with a laugh.
Younger parishioners, such as Jack Sheehan, are also active in the parish community. A parish member since 1988, Sheehan was a CCD teacher for four years and is on the committee that prepares and develops the men's and women's Cornerstone retreat.
"It takes most of the year—nine months—to prepare the weekend," Sheehan said. He has been involved in the retreat panning for 11 years. "It is extremely rewarding to be involved in Cornerstone. It is a great parish experience. Every year there is a different experience and it is like a spiritual renewal every year I participate."
Although the retreat structure is defined by a guidebook, the retreats are another way the parish community lives its faith through ministry. "It is a vibrant and involved parish," Sheehan said. "About 25 percent of the congregation is very active. For many young families, life is not easy and it is more difficult to engage in parish activities. However, there are many social outreach ministries and this place is a beehive. It's always busy. There is always something going on and it's a non-stop operation. St. Helen's has become the center of my family's social life."
Sheehan believes Msgr. Harms is the reason that St. Helen Parish functions so well in the community. "I have great respect for Msgr. Harms. Because he came in after Msgr. Burke, it was like he had the job of following a beloved president. Our current pastor is very rich intellectually and, for a somewhat reserved individual, he is very personable. It is enjoyable to relate to him on a personal level and he is very dedicated to the parish. The community embraced him through the years."
As a member of the archdiocesan New Energies committee, Sheehan is taking part n the evolution of St. Helen's Parish. "New Energies is the next activity level for the whole archdiocese. The Catholic community has not been allowed to rest or become stale. There are people with different thought processes trying to improve the community. It is difficult and challenging but good things are happening."