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home : features : people of faith

7/28/2011 6:08:00 AM
Athens and Catskill Catholics discover that change is good
• One of the directors of the choir, Marie Bitter, has led the group since 2009, but has been a part of the choir since 1960. The other music director, Vincent Brennan, has been playing since 1949.

• How does the choir recruit new members? "If we hear a good singer in the congregation, we grab them at the end of Mass," said Sandy Friend.

• The youngest member of the choir is 17-year-old Caitlyn Lubera, who joined two years ago. She is the third generation from her family tree in the choir, singing alongside her aunt, Brenda, and great-aunt, Joan Young.

• Not only does the choir sing and socialize together, they also exercise together: Three times a week, parish life director Sister Mary Mazza and some of the singers walk two miles after finishing an exercise DVD. They call themselves "The Losers."

• During last year's Bishop's Appeal campaign, St. Patrick's in Athens had reached its goal, but Catskill had come up just short. Sacramental minister Rev. Richard Shaw asked during a Mass in Athens for a handful of people to help Catskill; by the end of the liturgy, they had reached their goal.


More than a dozen people crowded into the parish house of St. Patrick's parish in Athens. Snacks and drinks littered the tables. The youngest of the group, seven-year-old Gracie, lay on the ground coloring. Chairs were arranged in a circle so everyone could face one another.

The choir for the linked Catholic community of St. Patrick's parishes in Athens and Catskill had gathered for a night of laughter, stories and old-fashioned "partying."

Only two years ago, this get-together would have been a somewhat awkward affair. When St. Patrick's parish in Athens and St. Patrick's in Catskill first became linked during the Albany Diocese's "Called to be Church" pastoral planning process, there was what choir member Joe Capobianco described as "dissension."

The Catskill church building was in need of repair at that time, and parishioners were forced to use their parish center as a worship space. Many felt they were being forced to link with St. Patrick's in Athens more than they wished to, and wanted their own church back.

First steps
Under the guidance of Sister Mary Mazza, CND, the parish life director for both parishes, and Rev. Richard Shaw, the sacramental minister, the two parishes eventually made the most of the situation.

Their relationship really began to click a year and a half ago, according to Athens trustee John Pulice: "That's when you started to see everything working together nicely and the pieces coming together."

Parish musicians were the first to collaborate. The choirs from the two parishes decided to merge, singing at both sites.

Sandy Friend became a member of the choir around that time. She told The Evangelist that there was some tension in their first few practices together, but now they are like family: "We're always looking out for each other and love to spend as much time together as we can."

Beyond their weekly Monday practices for the past two years, the group frequently meets at the parish house for dinner and fellowship.

Sister Mary said they "blazed the trail for the rest of us.

"This group has stretched and grown together and have become a model for the rest of the parishioners," she explained.

There has been a ripple effect in the greater parish communities. Now, the parishes alternate their weekend Masses and share liturgical ministers, Knights of Columbus meetings, parish dinners, sacramental preparation and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) for people joining the Church.

Much of that is attributed to the efforts of Sister Mary in promoting consolidation: "You just can't say no to her," joked Mary Ann Peters, a trustee from Athens.

Sister Mary has seen a number of non-active parishioners return, as well as an increase in young adults and youth at the parish. Mr. Capobianco said he's noticed that more and more parishioners seem willing to stay after Mass just to chat and meet one another.

For Andy Dougherty, the choir has "[made me] realize the impact that music can have on the celebration of the Mass. It makes it 10 times more powerful and has given the parishes the ability to survive through all the changes.

"Some Christian faiths are known for their music; now, we're like that, too," Mr. Dougherty added. "People hear [the choir] as they walk by and just want to come in and see what it is all about."

Fellow choir member Brenda Lubera said, "This experience has taught us to learn to work our way through everything, whether we're laughing or crying together. It's a message to other parishes going through the same thing."

Changes to come
Ironically, some of the same parishioners who resisted change will be spearheading it when the choir helps Athens and Catskill Catholics through upcoming changes to the liturgy as the new Roman Missal is implemented in Advent.

The group may also participate in a "flash mob" - an Internet sensation where large groups of people assemble for some exhibition, dance, performance or action and then disperse quickly - by singing Christmas carols in a local store.

"Music was our common goal," said Mr. Dougherty. "It has given me a part in the Mass and it's evangelization. We see people's faces, their eyes closed as they sing, and know we're reaching them."

Sister Mary sees the Catholic community of St. Patrick's in Athens and Catskill (as the parishes now describe themselves) as "two townships, one community and one family. We had oil and vinegar, and now it's blended. We're still growing, but we worship as one."

Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, September 1, 2016
Article comment by: Betty Harnisch-Averna

Marie Bitter - were you the waitress at Sunnybrook in the Catskills way back when? Our whole family loved Sunnybrook and regret so much that it no longer exists....

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