By CHRISTOPHER ORLET
Twice a month, a group of men and women with a commitment to fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life come together at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows to pray and learn.
These are the Serrans.
The Serra Club of St. Clair County is named after the Franciscan Missionary, St. Junipero Serra, the founder of many of the California missions. The first Serra Club was founded in 1935 in Seattle by a small group of Catholic laymen who saw the need to foster vocations to religious life, both by recruiting vocations and by supporting those religious in their active careers.
Years later, Pope John Paul II called Serra, “The Vocation Arm of the Church.”
Seventy years ago, the local chapter of the Serra Club was established in East St. Louis at the behest of Bishop Albert Zuroweste. Later the East St. Louis chapter merged with a newly organized Belleville chapter to form the Serra Club of St. Clair County. The club celebrated its 70th anniversary July 3.
Seven decades on, the Serrans remain busy. Every other month, members visit a different parish, where they greet parishioners, hand out prayer cards, brochures and wooden crosses and talk about their club and the importance of vocations.
The Serrans promote an interest among diocesan grade schools and high school students by arranging visits to seminaries and convents in the St. Louis area. The Serrans hope to reach out to the students in the Parish School of Religion classes next.
There has never been a time when vocations were more important. Catholic leaders nationwide are concerned about a shortage of priests. The number of Catholics per priest in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1945. Presently, 48 diocesan priests serve the 108 parishes in the Diocese of Belleville. In addition, 16 religious order priests and priests from other countries also serve the parishes, as well as retired priests. The Diocese of Belleville also expects to see several retirements in the coming years.
“It’s a challenge,” says Jack Weck, director of programs for the Serra Club of St. Clair County. “We haven’t been too successful, but we haven’t given up.”
Weck, who joined the Serrans five years ago, is a great ambassador for the club. He said he joined because he found the club to be a “very prayerful group,” more so than just another social club.
Father Nicholas Junker, vocation director for the Diocese of Belleville, said, “The Serrans have helped me and my vocation ministry in countless ways, such as facilitating the seminary tours. I’ve been able to meet with hundreds of young men, introduce them to seminarians and talk with them about a priestly vocation because of their efforts. In addition to their commitment to support priests, seminarians, and religious, they work closely with our office to help establish a culture of vocations in the Diocese of Belleville.”
Likewise, Weck praised Father Junker. “You couldn’t ask for a better director of vocations than Father Junker. He is so down-to-earth, so easy to relate to.”
Honoring the religious is another way the Serrans promote vocations.
“We honor our priests, retired priests, deacons, nuns and seminarians and new priests with annual dinners, luncheons and picnics,” Weck said.
They pay for all of these expenses their selves, through dues. Weck said a single school trip to a seminary or convent in St. Louis can cost upwards of $1,000 by the time they rent a bus. He figures the club annually spends $4,000 or $5,000 on visits, picnics, lunches, and dinners for religious. “We don’t fund raise. So it mostly comes out of dues,” Weck said.
The Serra Club of St. Clair County meets every first the third Friday of the month (just as it has since 1948) at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. Mass begins at 11:45 a.m. followed by short meeting programs to plan activities to support vocations and also enrich the spiritual lives of the members through fellowship and by having qualified guests speak on spiritual matters.
If all that wasn’t enough, they also hold a holy hour once a month at the Poor Clare monastery in Belleville.
Weck points out the benefits to membership which include:
• Spiritual growth and enrichment through the deepening of your faith and increasing knowledge of the church’s teachings.
• Education through study of current events in light of our Christian principles.
• Service projects and social activities in association with priests, religious and Catholic men and women.
The Serra Club of St. Clair County is open to all Catholic men and women.
For more information about the Serra Club of St. Clair County call Serra Club President Bill Polka at 618-975-5909.