St. Amelia Parish refused to let a little snow prevent people from attending Mass. The Tonawanda parish started a parking lot ministry to make sure the elderly and disabled could safely enter the house of God.
The basic premise of this ministry is to help parishioners who need assistance in entering the church. Attendants stand at the front doors, scanning the parking lot. When they see someone parking in the handicapped zone, they simply walk over and ask them if they would like any assistance. The attendants, clad in fluorescent green vests, go on duty about 30 minutes before each of the five weekend Masses. Over a quarter of the parishioners are over 65 years old, and a few use wheelchairs or walkers to aid in mobility.
"When people need some assistance physically walking from their car to the church, we go and help them," said Rob Coppola. "There's handicapped parking close by that's right in our sight so we know who these people potentially would be."
The idea came to the St. Amelia's Parish Ministry Team last year after reading "Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter" by Father Michael White and Tom Corcoran. The book tells how a parish in Timonium, Md., looked at their dwindling numbers and made some changes to rebuild themselves a vibrant parish.
One of the many things mentioned is a parking lot ministry.
"We kind of got our inspiration from them," said Brian Ruh, pastoral associate who coordinates the ministry.
A video on the parish website shows the rather simple instructions. When attendants see someone pull into one of the handicapped parking spots, they approach, welcome and ask if the guest needs assistance. About half actually accept the offer. The attendants then set up wheelchairs or walkers, and help the guest out of the car, then guide them into the church, pointing out potential hazards such the threshold of the narthex. Finally, the attendant asks the guests if they will need assistance after Mass.
The need is determined mostly by the weather. This past record-breaking winter saw many people being dropped off and needing to rely on the attendants more than in the milder fall and spring.
"In the winter there were quite a few senior citizens who were really happy we were there," said Jodie Buckley, one of nine attendants. "There was a lot of snow and it was icy. They were really glad to have somebody's hand to hold onto to help them into the building until they got on dry land."
Buckley got involved after St. Amelia's pastor, Father Thomas Maloney, asked for volunteers at Mass while speaking about Stewardship of Time.
"I thought, there are always things I want to do to help, but it's difficult because I have four kids. Two are at St. Amelia's and two are in high school, and there is always an issue with time," she said. "The parking lot attendant really appealed to me because I go to church every Sunday anyway. I just get there a half hour early. I thought this is perfect, because I can still help out. This was a good thing that fit into my schedule."
Bringing her kids a half hour early is no problem. The younger ones serve at the altar and open doors. So the job becomes a family affair.
"It encourages a hospitality element," said Ruh. "We have greeters. I created a Greeting Ministry. I asked people in the parish, 'I always see you at the 4:30. Would you ever consider doing this?' So we have greeters that are at the door. People come in and they see a warm, smiling face, and a familiar face too. They get to see them week after week. We're trying to build up that sense of community, build up that sense of hospitality."
The attendants even manage to keep a smile when the temperatures are below zero.
"It's a humble ministry. It's something that we want to do. We want to help people. If something comes of it and more people come out, that's great," said Michael Dziedzic. "It's very rewarding. I don't think I'll give it up."