Population growth = growth in God’s kingdom

Mar 6, 2024
Six children from St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Summerfield received the Sacrament of First Holy Communion in 2023 — a first for a church accustomed to an older congregation. Behind the first communicants are catechists Francesca Boroden, left, Ann Esposito, Phil Arcoria, Pam Koenig, Carol Simmons, Mary Wood and Peg McLaughlin along with Father Rafal Kandora, pastor, OSPPE. (COURTESY PHOTOS)

ORLANDO | Booming construction in Marion and Sumter counties is breathing new life into the Catholic Church in the northwest corner of the diocese.

An influx of young families on the outskirts of The Villages is invigorating faithful communities formerly packed with mainly elderly parishioners.

St. Jude in Ocala is a fairly small parish. In years past, the faith formation program saw less than one dozen young people receiving the Sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation. This coming year, the classes are expected to more than double for each Sacrament.

“We’re very happy and growing and growing,” said Mary Lynn Martin, the director of religious education. “Construction is going on all over. Each community around us is building.”

St. Jude is north of The Villages by about 45 minutes. Seeing several families moving in from different states and growth in Hispanic families joining the parish, she said the community is flourishing.

To the east is St. Mark the Evangelist in Summerfield. Known for its large variety of biblical studies and ministries, the parish usually sent young people in need of Sacramental preparation to St. Timothy in Lady Lake. This past year, the catechetical program began with eight students. Father Rafal Kandora-pastor, hired Edith McDaniel as the director of religious education in the hopes of growing the program, a new demand in a parish traditionally comprised of parishioners more than 65 years old.

McDaniel came out of retirement after running large programs of 700 or more students in Boston. The addition of a Liturgy of the Word for children is also helping boost the faith formation program.

She said, “It gives parents a chance to really sit and listen to the homilies while their children are learning the same things on their own level elsewhere.” To further meet families’ needs, she plans to offer Vacation Bible School in June.

We get a lot of people moving to this area because there’s a lot of work here.”

With two-thirds of The Villages’ the labor force experiencing long commutes, The Villages developed Middleton, a small community aimed at supporting young families with variable cost housing. The community accounts for much of St. Mark’s growth.

“The parishioners love to see the families and the kids,” McDaniel said. “It’s a very open parish. We recognize all of us are getting older and we need these children and families to keep this church going.”

A 35-minute drive south of St. Mark the Evangelist is St. Lawrence Parish, Bushnell. Old farmland has morphed into new construction from I-75 east to S.R. 301.

St. Lawrence is in Sumter County, where the population increased by almost 20,000 from 2020 to 2022 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 7% of those residents are 18 or under, and the numbers keep climbing.

Once a parish seemingly in the woods, St. Lawrence now boasts packed pews, even when the families who spend winter in Florida head back north.

St. Lawrence’s director of religious education, Jean Wilson, is preparing almost 50 students to receive the Sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation, similar to past years. To accommodate the growth, she plans to add classes for every level next year.

“We are seeing more children in the pews,” she shared.

Bishop John Noonan anoints one of 29 candidates for the Sacrament of Confirmation at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Wildwood. Parochial vicar Father John McCracken says he is excited to watch the faith formation program at the parish grow with the burgeoning communities surrounding the parish. (COURTESY)

Perhaps experiencing the largest growth is St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Wildwood. New apartments and homes now surround the property and are packed with families who work in manufacturing, agribusiness and more.

Father John McCracken, parochial vicar, prepared almost 30 candidates for the Sacrament of Confirmation on Feb. 25, 2024, including 17-year-old Maria Paula. The teen from Colombia still remembers her mother’s face the first time the family participated in the celebration of Mass at the parish.

“It was a moment of clarity and joy which imprinted a picture of hope and positivity in my mind,” she said in a letter to Bishop John Noonan. The new resident felt welcomed by parishioners who shared her beliefs. “It felt like a hug around my heart to find our home was at St. Vincent de Paul.”

Now confirmed, she prays she has the opportunity to share the Christian love and faith growing inside her.

Father McCracken already sees the new families forming community and encourages parish programs to enhance their spiritual journey.

“We want to make sure we don’t lose these men and women,” he said noting he wants the students and their families to know “they’re very important in the life of the Church and the life of the parish as well.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, March 06, 2024