St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: ‘What a wonderful place to call home’
By Mariam Schmitz
In 1988, as the population of southwest Allen County continued to grow, Bishop John M. D’Arcy announced a new parish would be built to serve the area. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish was then formed and began to put down roots. It began humbly, with its first Mass celebrated by founding pastor Msgr. Robert Schulte at Haverhill Elementary School.
Over the past almost-30 years, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton has grown to be the third largest parish in the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese and now includes its own school. Despite the size of the parish, both in square feet and in the number of parishioners, there is a palpable sense of family and community within its walls. It offers dozens of ways parishioners can grow in their Catholic faith individually, and there are just as many additional ways for them to share that light with others.
Groundbreaking for the new church took place on Aug. 6, 1989, at the corner of Aboite Center and Homestead roads in Fort Wayne. The first Mass in the new building was celebrated on Sept. 8, 1990, and the parish has not stopped growing since. Over the years, more acres were purchased and there have been several additions made to the original building, including increased church seating, a new parish office center, music room, nursery and school. The building now has 140,000 square feet under one roof. The parish and school, as well as a full outdoor football field and rectory, sit on 24 acres.
The second pastor assigned to St. Elizabeth was Father James Shafer, who arrived in 2000. He led the parish through multiple expansion projects while providing spiritual guidance to an ever-growing community. In June of 2016, Father Dave Voors became St. Elizabeth’s third and current pastor. He said he has quickly adjusted to the parish and is especially grateful for its fine parishioners and staff. “You’re greeted by friendliness when you come in here. They really care about you. They all work hard, and their faith is the reason they’re here.”
Continuing its history of welcoming missionary priests, associate pastor Father Augustine Mugarura arrived from Uganda in January. He was a seminary professor for 22 years before coming to Fort Wayne. He currently has set office hours each week and is available for spiritual direction.
Father Voors spoke highly of his colleague, and said his time at the seminary makes him an especially great spiritual director.
While the parish initially had 375 families, it has since grown to about 2,500 families and 8,360 individuals. Despite the number, St. Elizabeth is able to maintain a family atmosphere. According to Deacon Jim Kitchens, the Christ Renews His Parish retreat and formation process is a major contributor to that climate. “CRHP feeds this place spiritually…it gives them a way to meet people and it’s a beautiful spiritual thing,” he said.
Parishioner Jennifer Vincent agreed. “Through the formation process, I was able to meet wonderful women and we were able to share our love for the Lord and just deepen our faith. We really support each other and help each other become more Christ-like in our daily lives.” CRHP is now in its 25th year at the parish.
There are many additional ministries that bring parishioners together, including a Mary Our Mother group for mothers of elementary-aged and younger children. The group offers speakers, activities and fellowship. There’s also a group just for dads that offers spiritual guidance and discussion. A Fraternus chapter is just beginning at the parish as well; Fraternus is a mentoring program aimed at developing boys into virtuous Catholic men.
The list of outreach programs the parish offers is extensive. A short list must include the St. Vincent de Paul Society that serves the needy within parish boundaries. Parishioners donate food to the pantry, which serves three to four families each week. It has been so successful that the St. Elizabeth chapter partners, or “twins,” with other Fort Wayne parish chapters to help even more people. Then there is Project HOPE (Help Our Parishioners at St. Elizabeth) which provides confidential assistance to families in need.
Fort Wayne’s Community Harvest Food Bank has been assisting the parish as well. According to Deacon Kitchens, “no one in this city should ever go hungry. There’s no reason for it, because between us and other parishes and churches, it’s there.”
Other ministries include an active Knights of Columbus council, a youth group for high school and middle school students, a religious education program, Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, a bereavement ministry and a pro-life committee.
The award-winning St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School has been growing with the parish. There are currently 530 students enrolled in pre-school through eighth grade. The school offers many ways to enrich and enlighten its students: There are two state-of-the-art computer labs as well as a media center, which allows for livestreaming and corporate-grade videoconferencing so students can interact with others from around the world.
A new initiative called Blended Learning combines the best of online learning with traditional teaching methods. According to school principal Lois Widner, Blended Learning “takes what the wonderful teachers have been working on and individually students can soar as high as they want to go.”
In addition, students in fifth through eighth grade participate in Starbase Indiana, a premier educational program sponsored by the Department of Defense. It challenges them with activities in science, technology, engineering, and math subjects. There is also a National Junior Honor Society, a Spanish program for grades kindergarten through eight, a student council and many Catholic Youth Organization sports like track, cross country, football, volleyball and basketball. There is a vibrant arts curriculum too, which includes art classes for kindergarteners through eighth-grade students, as well as a show choir, band and guitar club. A dedicated resource department assists students who may need extra help, as well as those who need to be challenged.
The Catholic identity of the school is strong and is made even more secure through weekly Masses, daily religion classes, an eighth-grade Journey of Faith retreat and more. The school participates in the Rachel’s Challenge program, named after Rachel Scott, a student who was tragically killed at the Columbine High School shooting. According to Principal Lois Widner, Rachel’s Challenge “really helps focus these children on how to be compassionate, caring and respectful towards everyone.” This has led to a community outreach program called Rachel’s Club, in which students help the local hospice, their church and each other.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School recently earned the Best of Fort Wayne Award in Education for the second consecutive year. It is presented by the Fort Wayne Award program that honors the achievements of local businesses and educational institutions. In addition, Widner recently earned the Light of Learning Administrator Award as well as the 2016 Exemplary Administrator Award from the Indiana School Counselor Association. She gives credit to the school staff: “I can’t say enough about our administrative staff. They’re just fantastic… I know the teachers are dedicated. Everybody here gives 200 percent to everything they do.”
Ultimately though, she added, it’s about the students. “We’re here for these children. We want them to grow and be great citizens. But the bigger picture is, they’re going to have another life with Christ. So let’s help them form that here.”
With all the school and church offer, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish serves as a beacon of faith for all those in southwest Allen County. Recounts parishioner Steve Bush: “I was a Catholic who had fallen away from the church for 35 years, and St. Elizabeth was my homecoming. It was the loving embrace that this parish gave to us that brought us back home. I can’t walk through the gathering area without getting hugs. What a wonderful place to call home.”
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