A New Model for Catholic Community

 
 
To some, the phrase "Catholic Community" conjures up images of exclusive ghettos — areas of faith-filled Catholics who live close together and are so different from the world outside that they fail to engage it in any meaningful way. At the other extreme is contemporary Catholic life, where churchgoers attend the parish of their choice (which may or may not be their neighborhood parish), rarely see their fellow Catholics outside of the Mass, and do not so much influence the culture as merge into it.
 
Enter Chris Currie, who seems to have found a third way, one that simultaneously preserves the Catholic laity’s interaction with society at large and helps create the support structures to strengthen the faithful in their daily struggle for holiness.
 
In America’s early days, when Catholics in many parts of the nation were almost exclusively immigrants and their children, the ghetto "did what the church couldn’t do," Currie says. Families depended not upon the formal structures of the Church or the government for help, but upon their neighbors: barn-raising, cooking meals for post-natal mothers, babysitting, tool sharing, and rosary-praying were all provided by the Catholic community itself, without the involvement of the pastor or the town council.
 
As Catholics integrated more fully into society, and as anti-Catholic sentiment died down, church members began separating, moving further and further away from their parish center. As this happened, they became increasingly like their Protestant and secular neighbors, until there was little to objectively distinguish a Catholic from anyone else. Because the close-knit communities that had previously passed on the Church’s traditions were now non-existent, formation atrophied. An increasing number of families claimed to be Catholic without truly knowing what the Church taught.
 
Currie’s solution began several years ago when he and his young family moved to Hyattsville, Maryland — a mid-sized municipality inside the Washington, D.C. beltway. The local parish, St. Jerome’s, was headed by a faithful, kid-friendly, high-energy priest engaged in spreading Eucharistic devotion and authentic Catholic spirituality. Currie soon convinced his sister’s family, also faithful Catholics, to move into another Hyattsville home. That accomplished, the two families began paging through their address books, looking for old friends with new families of their own and asking them to consider moving to Hyattsville. At the same time, they made contacts at the parish and at a local, long-standing Catholic Bible study, and discovered other young families with a similar devotion to living in the fullness of the Faith.
 
Within a couple of years, a nexus of seven families had formed, and the mothers established the Mary, Cause of Our Joy home school co-op. As this effort was getting off the ground, Currie began familiarizing himself with the local real estate market, networking with agents and touring homes. Researching what houses were available became "a new hobby," he said, and as he matched houses with Catholic acquaintances, agents and landlords began to look to him as a valuable contact.
 
The Catholics formed a Yahoo! Group, which then split into husbands’ and wives’ listservs; the mothers set a weekly neighborhood walk; two sisters whose father had published an easy-to-use Liturgy of the Hours prayer book began hosting Evening Prayer followed by a potluck supper at their families’ duplex home every Sunday. A mother typed up a directory of Catholic families in Hyattsville, and a father established game night as a response to the moms’ recently begun book club.
 
With all of this activity came attention — faithful Catholics in other parts of the country began hearing about what was happening in Hyattsville and called Currie to see if other houses were available. As of this writing, he is working with twelve different families who want to move to Hyattsville.
 
 
Of course, I’m oversimplifying things a bit. Many of Currie’s initial contacts said no, they’d rather stay where they were, thanks. And most of those who ended up moving were friends-of-friends. In hindsight, Currie thinks he over-planned, trying to determine in advance the configuration and charism of the community that would take shape. He had envisioned a group of tech-savvy suburbanites. But Hyattsville ended up more often attracting families that were into simple and sustainable living, and who are at home in an urban environment. It’s important, he adds, to remain prayerfully open to God’s movement, instead of praying that God be open to yours.
 
Currie welcomes e-mails from families interested in moving to Hyattsville, but his ultimate goal is to have "other people capture a vision of shared living centered around faith and good works and implement it in their communities."
 
He insists that having families live in isolation is not the Catholic way. "We’ve accepted the nuclear family model, which is a Protestant idea" tied into the individualism of the Enlightenment. Currie argues that we are made for communion, which implies not only the immediate community of family, but also parish life. If families are the cells of the organism we call "society," then the parishes are the organs, and an organism without healthy organs soon dies.
 
"What this is really about is the renewal of parish life," he says.
 
Obviously, not every area can support an endeavor like this. Hyattsville’s suburban location allows for the diversity of careers necessary to attract Catholics from all walks of life, and it has homes for families of different income levels. Also, on the whole, the Archdiocese of Washington is blessed with a remarkably loyal contingent of priests — another necessity. Catholic University’s proximity was also a definite plus, as the group has attracted people "in the academic side of things." Finally, Maryland has relatively benign homeschooling laws, ensuring that families would not face the burdens carried by those in Pennsylvania, for example.
 
These are all important considerations for anyone interested in replicating Currie’s vision in another part of the country.
 
Perhaps the most striking part of the enterprise is the non-exclusivity of the communities. Although the Catholic families live in close proximity to each other, they do not live in a ghetto: They still have non-Catholic neighbors and co-workers; children mix with non-Catholic friends on their streets or in their scouting programs; no language barriers obstruct communication between parishioners and those around them. They are fully a part of the local community, even as their Catholicity is not diluted by it. In this way, they are truly the "salt of the earth" — in the world, but not of it.
 


Eric Pavlat is a board member of Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., and a columnist and blogger for InsideCatholic.com.

Eric Pavlat

By

Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

  • Mother of Two boys

    Thank you Eric,

    I knew I wasn’t the only one with this vision…. I have 7 brothers and have tried to make this happen with them over the years but was unsuccessful. Thank you Eric, this was just the link I have been missing to pursue this again; in my new hometown.

    I will contact Currie and see if I can make it happen here! My vision actually includes several income-generating activities that would bring the ever-growing ring of families a level of prosperity that would enable them to LIVE the GOSPEL OUT LOUD in what I call, PROJECT: THY Kingdom COME on Earth as it is HEAVEN.

    Funny, I just asked a class of teens this weekend at our Parish “Is it just me, but I am tired of this “Thy Kingdom Come” just being a few words in the Our Father?” It just warms my heart to know it isn’t just me….

  • Jason

    Eric-

    Thanks for sharing this inspiring story. This organic growth of a thriving Catholic community mirrors our own experience, and I suspect there are others, too.

    When we moved our family from Steubenville, Ohio to Michigan in August 2000, our biggest concern was leaving behind a wonderful community of young Catholic families with strong faith lives whose vlues and beliefs reflected and supported our own. We had much of what Currie’s vision encompasses. We found, to our delight, that Southeast Michigan has all of this and more. We are blessed in this area with 4 or 5 great parishes & pastors, a strong homeschooling network (and liberal homeschooling laws), and hundreds of strong Catholic families from all walks of life, but committed to similar visions of holiness for their families and for our community. We don’t live in the same neighborhood, but there’s room for more to move in!

    Thanks again, Eric. Very encouraging news.

  • Columcille

    If this article is deemed “advertising” for the Hyattsville Catholic real estate network, then it is illegal.

    Surprised?

    So was I when I sought to develop a similar idea in my local area.

    Today we live amid a culture that is barbarian. If you want to develop a Catholic Community to help create a “creative minority” that can share a common culture and life, be very careful. You could be exposing yourself to a law suit.

    Federal law makes it illegal to advertise housing options based on religious preference.

    Astonishing? Yes.

    Diversity leads to social alienation. Which might be why it is part of our Federal housing policy.

  • Todd

    “Diversity leads to social alienation. Which might be why it is part of our Federal housing policy.”

    A bit harsh, don’t you think?

    Diversity leads to catholicity, and the richness we have from innumerable saints and cultures. One might well ask a large busy parish is it has a few or even one expression of being Catholic, or can one easily find people with various sensibilities: ignatian, franciscan, benedictine, cursillo, ME, artistic, charity, justice, and the like.

    While I applaud like-minded people banding together for support, at some point Catholics might grow up. Which, do you suppose, is more pleasing to God? A circling of the wagons against the culture, or the evangelization of an entire existing neighborhood?

    I’m not saying these Catholics don’t do that, but the real test of their fruitfulness would be along these lines: Is the Gospel preached? Do the poor hear good news? Are the sick, shut-ins, and prisoners visited? Are people comforted? Otherwise, and without the Holy Spirit’s prompting, we’re talking country club, not Catholic community.

  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Eric, Thanks for sharing the story of this community/neighborhood. I know people who’ve tried something similar, but it didn’t work for one reason or another. It seems to me a few key elements allow something like this to work:

    - Inclusivity. Other families and people living in and among the Catholic households.

    - No formal structure. Currie helps people find housing and families take leadership in shared activities, but otherwise the households are independent.

    - Organic development and growth. Despite Currie’s hope that this would become a community of tech-savvy surbanites, it became its own thing.

    - Location, location, location. As you stated, this spot allows for diversity of careers, accessibility to good institutions, and dynamic parishes. Not to mention various housing options for different income levels. It’s rare to find this in one place.

    But I hope Currie and the example of this community will inspire others around the country.

  • Pansy Moss

    If this article is deemed “advertising” for the Hyattsville Catholic real estate network, then it is illegal.

    Surprised?

    No, not really. First of all, let me state that I would love to live in such a community. But I can see how such a thing could and would be illegal. It smells too much of blockbusting, which has become illegal for very good reasons.

    People do have a Catholic Community around them-the Parish. It has always been my feeling the parish community falls short. But why? It doesn’t take much organization for people to take an interest in each other, yet the desire isn’t there. I wish it were and have been wondering for years what to do about that.

  • EK Pavlat

    While I applaud like-minded people banding together for support, at some point Catholics might grow up. Which, do you suppose, is more pleasing to God? A circling of the wagons against the culture, or the evangelization of an entire existing neighborhood?

    Todd,

    Usually I enjoy and appreciate your comments quite a bit, which is why I was surprised to read today’s. You evidently missed the entire point of the article. I’ll restate it here:

    Enter Chris Currie, who seems to have found a third way, one that simultaneously preserves the Catholic laity’s interaction with society at large and helps create the support structures to strengthen the faithful in their daily struggle for holiness.

    Currie’s idea does not fall into your pre-existing ideas. There is no “circling of the wagons.” If you have time, re-read the article, keeping the central point of it in mind.

    And for the record, the community volunteers at the soup kitchen, visits the local nursing home with the homeschooled children (who sometimes put on a play or sing songs for them), works on pro-life initiatives (such as Gabriel Project), and is active in local politics. Hope that allays your fears.

    I’d look forward to hearing from you again.

  • Jason

    Columcille and I are both familiar with an entity in Florida that is trying to create a similar environment from nothing. Whether it meets with success remains to be seen. I, for one, vastly prefer the sort of Catholic community described here – one that is woven throughout the greater local community, without raising the spectre of a pesky “more Catholic than thou” neighbor looking over my fence to see if I’m contracepting.

    I see the dangers of blockbusting, but what Currie is doing is perfectly reasonable. More of us who care about our local communities should be doing it. It’s a shame that wanting neighbors with similar beliefs and values to your own should be deemed suspect. So while I see Todd’s point, it shouldn’t control, and our laws shouldn’t be working against our natural inclination to seek those like us. I don’t want my kids’ circle of friends to be dominated by those I deem undesirable (yes, I know that’s not PC, but T.S.), and building a strong Catholic community of friends & neighbors is a great way of giving them more good friends/families to associate with.

  • Columcille

    At “the fullness of time” the God of Abraham made good on his promise of mercy by sending his only Son with the message of salvation. Why didn’t he send Jesus a few days after the Fall to Adam and his wife Eve? Salvation History holds important lessons that were necessary to impart before the Gospel could be received. One of those lessons is that the messiah and the message of the Gospel came not to a family, or an extended family, or to a tribe, or to a nation, but to a kingdom – a community that was deeply embedded with a common culture, history, language and faith.

    For those of us that are truly working for the Restoration of Catholic Culture in this country, this is an important lesson.

    If we try to be “affirmatively Catholic” as a family in our suburban subdivision without a thought of embedding our families in consciously Catholic Communities, then we are a family that is at risk.

    We have to recognize that the New Evangelization will grow out of authentically Catholic Communities where the Faith flowers into a visible culture that non-Catholics experience as salt and light. We have to recognize that we need to be in communion with others who share our Faith and worldview. When the local parish is filled with the walking dead, we have to seek out others who are alive with Christ and enter communion.

    Jason points to the efforts to do this in south-west Florida, but this project seems to target Catholics much more than BEING Catholic – which is why many predict that it will fail.

    Don’t get me wrong.

    We have to start thinking about rebuilding civilization, and that means creating “Conscious Catholic Communities.”

    There are ways to get around the law forbidding religious preferences.

  • David L. Alexander

    It doesn’t take much organization for people to take an interest in each other, yet the desire isn’t there. I wish it were and have been wondering for years what to do about that.

    Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it? What you “do about that,” is show them how it’s done.

    We have obviously forgotten how to be a parish. Most of them are personality cults, attracting the parish-hoppers who want to follow Father Feelgood to the ends of the earth. When the love fest is over, they go their merry ways, and the Walmart-sized parking lot is empty.

    (Personally, I blame it on “Mass facing the people,” but I digress…)

    Catholics need to learn (or I should say, “re-learn”) how to be part of a parish. They won’t learn on their own. They need someone to show them how. Until they summon the will, let them go to Hyattsville, and let us built more places like it.

    I live across town. Had I known about this three years ago, I’d be living there right now. (Note to Eric: Check your inbox.)

  • Todd

    Eric, thanks for your original essay. I suppose I was responding more to post #3. I did read your whole essay, but I’d like to see more from Currie himself. His analysis of nuclear families is off-tilt. A few other things just struck me as out-of-tune and I’d prefer to read or hear more before commenting directly on them.

    At the risk of picking too much on Columcille, I think a better descriptor than “conscious” is “intentional.” Intentional Catholic Communities have been with us for centuries. Some are bound by religious vows. Some very successful lay organizations can be termed thus. There are good numbers of parishes that promote community as well.

    If people are looking for what will make for a successful community, I would suggest taking a diverse look at what has worked in Christendom over the centuries. And even if something is beyond the possibility (like some of the more intense reform-minded religious orders) we can still look at certain qualities that bind people closely in faith and learn from there.

    I certainly wouldn’t mind living a deeper and more intentional aspect of community with other Catholics.

  • William

    “And even if something is beyond the possibility (like some of the more intense reform-minded religious orders) we can still look at certain qualities that bind people closely in faith and learn from there.”
    ********

    Interesting, no? These intense reform-minded religious orders are the only ones thriving. The liberal loonies and their “god-within” tripe and labyrinth-walking nonsense aren’t some much as able to attract a fly to their pile of stink.

  • Tim Shipe

    Very interesting and positive article. It is so difficult to combine what I see are my parental responsibilities to raise my own little ones with truth, beauty and innocence and of course super-abundant affectionate love- as 1 Peter 4: 8 says in part: “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.”

    But I also have a Catholic lay duty to renew/reform the temporal order- to include the political and economic structures and the culture. So this idea of informal but very active Catholic community has great appeal for me.

    As an informal word-of-mouth request- I would like to let strong Catholic families know that if they are interested in moving someplace close to Disney World, close to beaches, and the the Space Coast, my wife and I can help you find a suitable home- we live in a new little development with new and very recently built homes for sale- I would love to try something like described above in our community- great little niche for families and I am very interested in building up some very active political movements to address many Catholic social and familial issues that threaten our children and basic justice/mercy. We are developing as a Catholic community, I am teaching at the area CAtholic high school and we are making some solid orthodox strides to bring authentic Catholic identity and action into the larger community. I am organizing a Congressional candidate forum at our school in a couple of weeks with the Diocese of Orlando- there is a lot of work to do but the laborers are few- contact me if you love warm weather all year, you love the ocean, and you can deal with the occasional hurricane or tropical storm!

  • Deacon Ed

    The Church is meant to be communitarian, however that’s effected. What we have now doesn’t work in creating an environment larger than the family unit that is Gospel-driven. Families are in desperate need of support in raising families in our ‘culture of death.’ Evangelization of our secular world is going to be more effective if there is mutual support among families. What’s needed now is a clearinghouse of such communities around the country (world) from which Catholics may chose to live, raise their families and retire. I have often dreamt of such a community and applaud this effort in Hyattsville.

  • Jason A.

    Eric,

    Great post and my family and I are very interested in the Hyattsville community. I live in the Eastern Panhandle of WV now, but am looking for a change.

    Anyway, the email link in your article doesn’t seem to work. How do I get in touch with Mr. Currie.

    Thanks for the article!

  • EK Pavlat

    Try the link again–it was broken earlier today, but I think it’s fixed.

    If that doesn’t work, e-mail Mr. Currie here: the.curries at verizon.net

    –Eric Pavlat

  • JC

    This is an amazing model.

    As for “circling the wagons,” I believe that’s what Christians did for the first few centuries of our history.

  • Jason

    The link works now. Thanks!

  • David L Alexander

    I find it astonishing that some people reading this, would consider this idea either novel, illegal, or too much like living in a monastery. (“Religious community”? Huh?) You know what’s unique about this? The fact that it’s NOT unique. Every neighborhood, every small town, every hamlet in this America where a parish was built and the faithful lived nearby, was formed in precisely the way in which these people of Hyattsville are living. “Ooooh, look, they’re living within walking distance of their church. I’ll bet they walk to school, to the grocery store, maybe even (gasp!) to their jobs! Don’t they know what suburbs are for? Why can’t they just get into a car and get stuck in traffic for every single thing they do like the rest of us? You mean to tell me they have sidewalks? Don’t these people know there are zoning laws in some places against stuff like that? What’s that? You mean they actually TALK TO THEIR NEIGHBORS?????”

    I know that’s not what some of you are saying. Still, that’s what I’m hearing.

    But hey, that’s just me.

  • David L Alexander

    …but I just had to get that out of my system. I feel better now. Thanks.

  • Richard

    While I applaud like-minded people banding together for support, at some point Catholics might grow up. Which, do you suppose, is more pleasing to God? A circling of the wagons against the culture, or the evangelization of an entire existing neighborhood?

    You’re capable of being thoughtful, Todd. Which is why this post is, frankly, a real disappointment.

    Why assume this manichean choice, Todd? Is the only choice Catholics have to pull up the drawbridge and rebuild the ghetto/monastery, or hitting the bricks “evangelizing?” Are they – meaning rebuilding some sense of Catholic community versus engaging the larger society – really mutually exclusive?

    “Grow up.” We’ve been hearing that refrain for over 40 years, and some might suggest that most of the growing that has happened has been right out of the faith altogether. What is a mature Catholicism supposed to look like? I think you’re far too quick to assume the worst of Mr. Currie’s efforts. How do you know how they live? How they interact with their larger community? Did you really expect Eric to provide every last detail?

    To evangelize requires having the faith in the first place. And generally that requires some kind of support.

    I second all of Mr. Alexander’s comments (as I often do).

  • PM

    It all sounds great. However, I thought that is exactly what we have our local parish for, building community and challenging us all to follow our faith more deeply.

    Consider that sometimes God calls you to bloom where you are planted. That there is fertile soil right where you are. The Catholic utopia is not always some place else.

    I do understand though that for some people moving to a community like this may be God’s direction.

    Are any troubles among these communitities that over time come to the surface. Are they bound by any specific regulations or commitments that group requires?

    I got the impression that these were all homeschooling families. What if one of them wanted to send their children to public schools? Would they be shunned?

  • Eric Pavlat

    Are any troubles among these communitities that over time come to the surface? Are they bound by any specific regulations or commitments that group requires?

    Nope.

    I got the impression that these were all homeschooling families. What if one of them wanted to send their children to public schools? Would they be shunned?

    I may have given a false impression. Although many of the most active members are homeschoolers, some families take advantage of the parish’s K-8 school, while a few send their children to public school (full disclosure: I’m a public school teacher and our family homeschools). And no, we don’t shun these parents; we just had a play date with one of these families two days ago (canceled due to rain, but scheduled, anyway). Sorry to have skipped/glossed over some details.

  • PM

    Thank you for your reply Eric. It was refreshing to hear.
    My impression has been that these communities have all been homeschooling ones. Other communities I have known about are different in terms of the expectations and regulations and also the degree to which you are even allowed in if you have different schooling philosophies or do not have a large family. Some of them seem to be to be very unhealthy, isolated communities who are not really having an effect on the “outside” world.

    I’m sure God uses you in many ways in your role as a teacher.
    That is an incredible ministry and I have the greatest admiration for teachers.

  • Eric Pavlat

    Thank you for your reply Eric. It was refreshing to hear.
    My impression has been that these communities have all been homeschooling ones. Other communities I have known about are different in terms of the expectations and regulations and also the degree to which you are even allowed in if you have different schooling philosophies or do not have a large family. Some of them seem to be to be very unhealthy, isolated communities who are not really having an effect on the “outside” world.

    Thanks for your kind words.

    Even our homeschoolers have different philosophies. Most of them use pre-packaged curricula (Mother of Divine Grace, Seton, etc.) One sends one kid to public school and educates the other one using unit studies. Another homeschools for Kindergarten only, sending them to the parish school as of first grade. Our family uses tidal homeschooling (see zoomtimes.blogspot.com). There have been disagreements about how many times a week to meet in the co-op (1ce or 2ce a week), but that’s really the biggest controversy I can remember.

    The genius of this particular group is that it is extremely conscious of the tendency to ghetto-ize, and it makes it a priority to avoid doing so.

  • Beth

    I wish this were possible for us. As it is, we do try to “rally” our fellow Catholics to participate in parish life and encourage them to send their children to the parish school and Catholic high school in the area. What I see coming from the Hyattsville’s of the world is a solid, deeply formed basis of faith. Those kids will thrive in that environment as their parents will have the support and resources they need to actively raise their kids in the faith. I believe they are right on track with the “new evangelization” as JPII spoke about.

    God Bless Hyattsville!

  • mj anderson

    Great article Eric!

    I should dig out an old book I found on one such idea started in Florida in 1800s. It was too restrictive, however, as I recall because it required a letter of rec from a pastor to reside there.

    I’ve heard of similar organically grown Catholic Communities that exist within bigger locales, like Greenville South Carolina.
    What I notice is the necessity for a really strong pastor.

  • Kathy

    Eric,
    Your story reminds me of the parish, St. Felicitas, on the southside of Chicago.where I grew up. The church and school were the center of our lives. Novenas, parish missions, May crowning procession throughout the neighborhood, all the activities at school, everything that made us a community. We had a strong pastor, Monsignor Walsh, who led with a strong yet loving hand. I miss those days!

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