On the morning of December 16th, the church doors were opened at nine a.m. to welcome the parents and other family members of our thirty plus pre-school students. For just over an hour, all were regaled with the songs and poems of our three and four year olds as the Christmas story was brought to life through the eyes of innocence. Immediately following the “service”, a reception of birthday cake for Jesus complete with ice cream was held in the parish hall.
Just a few hours later, the Tower Doors were opened as our guests and volunteers began gathering for the Community Market. Seventy guests were received that day. This Friday’s market was also different from most. This was our annual Christmas market. Not only were our usual tables heavily laden with food and produce, additional tables were set up offering our guests Christmas cookies, coffee and cocoa. In the church, a regular guest offered his gift of music adding the joyous sounds of Christmas with guitar and voice. Finally, thanks to your generosity, thirty families were able to bring home gifts of clothing to help make Christmas a little brighter.
Even before the last can of food was returned to the pantry shelf, the doors of the church swung open once again. Forty performers from Perspectives came pouring in. By 7 p.m. every seat in the church was filled. All waiting anxiously for an annual concert that is like none other. The majesty of this concert is not about musicality but about heart and soul, as marginalized members of South County, those with cognitive challenges, seized their opportunity to be seen and heard as the artists and the people God has created them to be.
As the last doors of the church were closed at 10 that night, they would not be closed long. Despite rain and sleet, by 10 am our Sunday School children gathered under the watchful direction of John Lord, Linda O’Neill, B.J. Carangia (Esposito) and others to make the final preparations for the next day’s Advent pageant. At 12 noon our building got a break as our Sexton David Ousterhout and BJ, who has been assisting David during his recovery from knee surgery, scurried about to make sure the building was clean and ready for the evening’s 12 step program and our arrival early Sunday morning.
As is the case every Sunday, the doors of the Church were swung open at approximately 7:30. Just in time for the arrival of the morning’s first parishioner and my signal to begin greeting many of you on your way into church. As always, the 8 o’clock service ended as the Choir and Sunday School began arriving. By 10:15 the church was almost filled to capacity. Over 180 people gathered for the Advent pageant. The pageant was a collective effort of all staff members, Sunday School teachers, as well as our 45 plus Sunday school students.
As the doors of the church were being latched and the coffee hour volunteers were finishing their clean up, Our Director of Music, Cheryl Casola was already back on the organ bench preparing for the Choral Service of Lessons and Carols to be held at 4 pm that evening. Again, over sixty people from the community and from St. Peter’s shuffled in to participate in a traditional service of Lessons and Carols complete with readings from the King James Version of the Bible. As the doors of the church were locked one last time for the weekend, I hurried off to host a Choir party at our home in Wakefield.
At Last, after washing the last of the dishes late Sunday night, the life of what is St. Peter’s by-the-Sea came to a rest. And yes, while tired, I was thankful. Thankful to be part of a community of faith that is so active, so full of the Spirit, and most of all so committed to feeding God’s people.
In recent months, I have talked a lot about how St. Peter’s is committed to feeding people. In notes to visitors, I often say that St. Peter’s by-the-Sea is a community of faith committed to feeding God’s sheep. We do this by physically feeding the poor through the Community Market, spiritually through the sharing of Word and Sacrament each week on Sunday mornings and mentally through the adult and children’s formation programs held at St. Peter’s throughout the week. When I shared this with our staff, John Lord pointed out that a church named in honor of St. Peter should be about feeding people. After all, it was Peter to whom the resurrected Lord asked to feed his sheep three times.
Here in Narragansett, we forget this final conversation between Peter and Jesus. More often than not, we connect our patron saint with the ocean and the fishing industry. Our logo depicts his net as we answer the call to be the fishers of all people. That said, even I, with the most rudimentary knowledge of fishing, know the best way to lure a fish into one’s net is to offer them something to eat. Here at St. Peter’s we do this in hundreds of different ways each year as we open our doors and spread our net wide into South County through the Community Market, our music program, the pre-K, Sunday School, adult forums, worship, The Brother’s Keepers Concert series, fund-raising events, and the countless weddings and funerals we hold here each year. All of these and more are the ways we feed the community body, mind and spirit while at the same time invite the stranger to engage with us as members of the Body of Christ, an active part of what our Presiding Bishop calls the Jesus Movement of Today.
Looking back over 2016, it is amazing what we have accomplished together. Last year at this time our finances and budget were tenuous at best. After several years of deficit spending, we faced yet another year of deficits. With our Treasurer’s assistance, we were able to make our budget more easily understood, the need was made clear and with a little. . .okay, a lot of nagging, we managed to end this year with a reasonable surplus . . .but only about half of what was needed to erase the deficits of the past. I wish I could say our financial problems are behind us, but as Roxanne will discuss later this morning, we are not there yet. Many of you rose to the occasion last year and that is why we were successful. I thank you for your commitment. Unfortunately, if we are to see long term financial sustainability, we need to heed the words of the stewardship campaign, “It takes the whole parish to sail this ship.” This includes young and old, rich and poor, new and long-standing members. For those who can, but have not yet, I ask you to prayerfully consider what we need for an average pledge, that is an annual commitment of approximately $2200 for 2017 (or about $40 a week). For those who have not pledged yet or have never pledged and $2200 seems overwhelming, set a goal of $10.00 a week, less than two grande coffees at Starbucks. The only way St. Peter’s can stay out of the red and offer the level of ministry it does, is if we all do as Fr. Mead encourages, “to stop being part of the aggregation and become part of the congregation.”
Beyond our finances St. Peter’s is doing well. I am astounded by the number of visitors we see each week and how strong our attendance remained throughout the summer. Across the board our numbers are growing. Not the least of which is a result of Cheryl’s gentle hand with the choir. The Choir pews are gone because the choir no longer fits in them. New chairs are coming. And more is planned. In addition to our adult and children’s choirs, one of Cheryl’s hopes is to start a hand bell choir for anyone interested and available during the day. In other conversations, we have talked about the possibility of paid leads for the choir to help strengthen and enhance the fine choral music she and the choirs provide each week.
Our Sunday School continues to grow and attract new families, thanks to the creativity and commitment of John Lord and our teachers.
The Community Market is growing. John Lord will report later that the number of families we now serve has increased from 40-45 each week, to 60 and at times over 70 families. Each week new families sign on with us. For many reasons the need is growing. By the grace of God, it is growing at a time when we are ready to handle the increase. God always provides in abundance. Thanks to John’s community outreach efforts, South County is beginning to take ownership of the program. Organizations like the Boy Scouts, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at URI, Monsignor Clark, the Quest School and the Ocean State Waves, have all joined with us to provide quality food for those in need. Bank RI, The Dollar Store and other companies now support us with financial grants and food collections. Most recently, the Chamber of Commerce is working with John to promote the market among its members. What is in store for the market in years to come? Conversations are in process as to the Market’s relationship to the congregation and how we can open ourselves up to new sources of funding.
The Pre-School has also made great strides towards sustainability. Last year we feared, that the pre-school would need to close due to limited enrollment and an operating loss. Thanks to Beth DiPanni’s leadership, with the help of Amy Crane, Alison Bateson-Toupin, Nicole Zelenek and Susannah Blair, a vision for the Pre-School’s future is now in place. This year, at 70% enrollment, the school will most likely break even. The goal going forward is to reach 100% enrollment and make the school financially self-sustainable
Most of us remember pre-school being all about play and socialization with low academic expectations. Since the early 1990’s, however, the Kindergarten experience has been completely transformed with academic skill-building taking center stage. These increased expectations for kindergarten students’ performance, coupled with strict state early learning curriculum standards and assessment/accountability requirements, have resulted in a push for a better connected, more coherent preschool-elementary school framework that would unite the most important and effective elements of preschool education with those of Kindergarten through grade 3. In other words, we have been challenged to develop a framework that includes the best of both worlds. This is the reality, this is what parents expect when they are looking at pre-schools for their children. And this is what we need to pursue if St. Peter’s Pre-School is to be successful and thrive in the 21st century.
For thirty-nine years, Carol Stuart has overseen the early education of two generations of Narragansett’s children. She has always provided a space where children can come to learn and grow in the context of God’s unconditional love. Again, God has blessed us. After several prayerful conversations, however, Carol has decided that because of a large divide in philosophy, she would not be able to support the new program and announced that she would retire at the end of this school year.
Clearly, filling Carol’s shoes is not easy. The loving, caring, low stress environment she has fostered is hard to come by. We knew we needed someone who understood and believed in Carol’s philosophy and was fully trained in current early education best practices. I am glad to announce that Rebecca Bouchard will be our next Pre-School Director. Rebecca has worked with Carol for several years and is fully certified in early childhood education. Her children are graduates of St. Peter’s. Rebecca is now working with Alison Bateson-Toupin planning and developing curriculum for the 2017-2018 school year. Beth DiPanni is hard at work with contractors planning the necessary work the Boss building needs to support the new pre-school program. Yes, change comes with a price tag, and I have asked Beth to share this with you later this morning.
As I come to the end of this address, I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to recognize the behind the scenes saints of St. Peter’s. First to your vestry, they work hard to guide the great ship we have become through the waters of today. To Beth DiPanni and Tom Utterback our wardens, who oversee the business end of this institution and spend countless hours trying to keep your Rector with ADD focused and in line. To Roxanne Melchiori for all her hard work as treasurer. It’s not easy managing a $500,000 budget while keeping tabs on over 1.6 million in assets like Roxanne does. Yes, she worries a lot on our behalf, while at the same time she continues to have faith in all of us and in God that our financial needs will be fulfilled And to our Deacon Anne Burke. I don’t think I could ask for the help of a better deacon. Each week Anne with the help of Ann Rheault and the pastoral care team, works tirelessly to make sure no sick or home bound member is forgotten – that plants, cards and most importantly communion is brought out to everyone who cannot come in. Like a true deacon, she keeps us mindful of the needs of our elderly in a way I could never do on my own.
Finally, a big thank you to Linda O’Neill, she is the saint behind every ministry here at St. Peter’s. She is the one who oversees the scheduling of the countless events that happen here. Keeps us organized, makes sure all documents are clear, proofed with all i’s dotted and t’s crossed. She serves as book keeper, secretary, receptionist and the list goes on and on. And, no matter what is going on at home, or how badly she may feel physically, no matter who calls, who walks in our doors, she is the first person they see or speak with, and it is always with a smile and a warmth that tells them no matter what they are looking for, they are safe, and this is a place where they will be fed.
In the 21st chapter of St. John’s Gospel Jesus asks Peter a third time, “ ‘Do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ ” Yes Lord, we the people of St. Peter’s by-the- Sea love you and as you have asked, we have fed your sheep throughout 2016. And with your help, we will continue to do so in 2017 as well.
The Rev. Craig Swan, Rector