Lessons from the largest parish in the United States

St Matthew's Charlotte

“Pat!” Msgr. John McSweeney calls down the hall.

Two heads poke out of two offices, and two replies of “Yes?” come back to him.

“This is nothing,” the correct Pat says as she walks me down the hall.

“We had eight Pats in the office at one point, and two of them were priests.”

A profusion of Pats is one of the simplest problems St. Matthew Catholic Church in Charlotte, N.C., has to grapple with.

Thirty years ago, St. Matthew had only 237 registered families, but the church has mirrored the explosive growth of Charlotte and now serves over 10,000 registered households, putting it in contention for being the largest parish in the United States.

Meanwhile, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the median Catholic church in America has 761 registered families.

That means everything about parish administration at St. Matthew has to be larger than usual.

  • Some 600 to 700 children receive first Communion together in a single weekend over four Masses,
  • up to 21 extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion line up at numbered stations during Mass (each with their own hand sanitizer dispenser), and,
  • over 7,000 volunteers help to run 103 active ministries.

Kathy Barlett, the music director, has been with St. Matthew since the beginning.

She got a letter about a new parish in Charlotte and attended the first Mass, which took place in a movie theater while they looked for a permanent home.

The musicians for the service were on loan from another parish, and St Matthew kept asking for volunteers.

She felt God prodding her, “You know music, raise your hand.”

She worked as a volunteer from 1986 to 1999, and then took on a full-time role managing music and liturgy.

One constant has been the screens; though the church has moved out of the movie theater, it now has large screens on either side of the altar to project lyrics, prayers and announcements during the service.

Mrs Barlett believes the screens help parishioners worship: “[they] get their heads out of the books and they lift their faces up to heaven to sing.”

The ushers that Mrs Barlett recruits and supervises help the parish keep statistics on their numerous sheep.

At services, they stand by the doors with clickers tucked unobtrusively in their pockets, to let them tally the number of people walking through.

The headcounts give the parish a way to keep track of ebbs and flows in Mass attendance, as well as to gauge the popularity of other events.

The day after I left Charlotte, St. Matthew began a three-day healing ministry, led by a visiting priest, that it was repeating partly because of last year’s success in drawing people in.

It is just as crowded beneath the church as it is upstairs.

In the basement, there is a huge space for food, clothing and other supplies collected through the church’s various donation ministries.

“I can’t believe you have a warehouse down here,” I exclaim on the tour, only to be corrected with a smile by Antoinette Usher, the facilities manager.

“No, our warehouse is at a different site.” To suit the needs of that location, the church has purchased its own forklift.

While other parishes are limited in what they can store or what projects they can take on, St. Matthew strives for an economy of scale that allows it to have something at hand for every need, whether physical or spiritual.

At least one refrigerator I find in the complex is marked ‘Muffings Only.’

St. Matthew uses its ministries and activities to help parishioners find a smaller community within such a large church.

Every one of St. Matthew’s groups is expected to hit three S’s: spiritual, social and service. Continue reading

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