CRANSTON — During a normal year, the 130 members of the Holy Apostles Church High School Youth Ministry would get together during Lent for such traditional events, such as the celebration of the Living Stations of the Cross and a huge Good Friday Walk, in conjunction with the middle schoolers.
They would also host several fundraisers and service activities to help the less fortunate.
But the pandemic has forced the teens and their ministry leaders to curtail their gatherings and reimagine how they can continue to do the most good while maintaining safety protocols in the age of COVID-19.
For the voluntary project the students decided to focus their energy this year on helping the homeless.
They sought to buy high quality backpacks for them, filling each with about 12-15 essential items to help them meet the challenges they face each day, including hygiene supplies, undershirts, underwear, masks, socks, snacks, hand towels and face cloths.
The teens could add any other items that they wished. But first, they had to find ways to raise the money they needed to achieve their goal.
Instead of hosting large scale dinners and bake sales to raise funds to support their service project, the students were guided instead to earn money individually on a very local level. They did household chores and some provided babysitting services to earn extra money.
Holy Apostles Youth Ministry Director Michael Santilli told them it was essential that they earn the money themselves and not simply ask their parents for it.
“Part of the project was that they were supposed to earn the money and then in turn, buy the backpack and fill it,” Santilli said.
On Sunday evening, March 21, the students came together in a rare, socially distanced gathering for one of their most cherished annual events: a Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament and a prayer service featuring a guest speaker who inspires in them a call to holiness.
This year, Father Brian J. Morris, Vocations Director for the Diocese of Providence and Chaplain at Bishop Hendricken High School, led these services. Afterward, he delivered a presentation encouraging the teens to identify their vocation in life and come to pursue that vocation through prayer and discernment.
By the end of the night more than 130 filled backpacks were stacked before the altar at Holy Apostles Church.
Half of them are being given to those in need at Emmanuel House, the diocesan homeless shelter on Public Street, while the other half have been given to Midnight Moments, a local organization that randomly delivers backpacks to people living on the streets of Providence, Woonsocket and Central Falls.
Further, the teens pledged to pray for the person who would receive their backpack as prayer unites each of us to Christ and each other.
“It’s amazing, they really responded to the call,” Santilli said. “They really get it, especially after listening to Father’s words and what we say here. They miss being here because of COVID and the circumstances, but they certainly came through.”
Caroline Thomas, a High School Ministry member and senior at St. Mary Academy, Bay View, said the backpack project is one that every teen should participate in.
“We heard upsetting and moving statistics on how so many homeless in Rhode Island lack the basic necessities of life — things we often take for granted,” Thomas said.
“With everything going on in our world, our Catholic faith challenges us to give back by helping those less fortunate than ourselves. Also, it was so exciting to pray and be with so many dedicated teens at Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for the first time in over one year.”
Michael Conti, a member of the High School Ministry, said he loves being part of such a caring, loving community as Holy Apostles and enjoy the times of prayer and service he has taken part in over the years.
“Growing up in a loving, Italian family and being active at Holy Apostles, as a missionary and senior altar server, I realize that I need to find ways to give back as a way of thanking God for all of His blessings in my life,” Conti said.
The Cranston West senior found the Lenten backpack project to be a wonderful way to help the homeless in Rhode Island and said he was inspired by Father Morris’ words.
“Projects like this lead us to better understand ourselves and provide opportunities to serve others, especially the poor,” he said.
Emma Lancellotta said that during these hard times of COVID-19, the teen ministry’s backpacks for the homeless project was more important than ever.
“Typically, all of the teens in our parish would engage in a variety of group service projects throughout Lent, many of which we could not do this year because of Covid restrictions,” the Cranston West sophomore said.
“Being able to help the homeless right here in Rhode Island with our individual Lenten project was extremely important and rewarding since we are still joined together in prayer and resources to help those in need,” Lancellotta said.
Michael Stabile, the first seminarian from Holy Apostles Parish, is a former teen ministry member.
The seminarian, who resides at Our Lady of Providence Seminary and attends classes at Providence College, said he was thankful that Father Morris presided at the Benediction and a prayer service and grateful for his speaking to the parish teens about the universal call to holiness.
He recalled how the Lenten projects he was once involved with in the teen ministry helped to inspire him on his call to service as he prepares for the priesthood.
“Looking back on my experience in the program, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to participate in similar events. I pray that our teens will recognize the impact of their Christian service and continue to serve the Lord as they discern their own vocations,” Stabile said.
Msgr. Paul Theroux, the pastor of Holy Apostles, said the parish’s Religious Education and Youth Programs always emphasize service as an important part of one’s Faith experience.
“In the past few years that I have served here, I have always been impressed by the positive spirit of our youth and their compassion and generosity, especially in responding to those in need,” Msgr. Theroux said.
“After a year of very limited contact with them due to the pandemic, I was heartened to again see such a great response to our backpack project.”
Msgr. Theroux noted that the power of the Lenten project, which was paired with a reflection on the hardship of life for the homeless, was that it provided a stark contrast between the comforts of home that many young people take for granted and the reality that those without a place to call home endure each day.
“Our Confirmation students had the opportunity to express both love for God and love of neighbor — living the two great commandments,” he said.