Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Holy Spirit leads: A candle burns near a statue of Mary and Jesus while Allyson Higgins and Andrea Swanson lead a discussion
Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Holy Spirit leads: A candle burns near a statue of Mary and Jesus while Allyson Higgins and Andrea Swanson lead a discussion
Five young Catholics link arms and run through the North Portland night, intent on finding fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Youth group leaders hid notes and actual pieces of fruit. It was a scavenger hunt with a purpose and it signaled one community’s burgeoning hope for its young people.

When Father Mark Bachmeier arrived as pastor of Holy Cross Parish in 2011, he met with many parishioners. Often, they told him they wanted a more vibrant ministry for high school teens and young adults.

Holy Cross has run a successful grade school for more than a century, even as the neighborhood has moved from blue collar to dilapidated to gentrified. Most graduates tend to find a spiritual life at their Catholic high schools. As is the case at many moderate-sized parishes in that situation, the dynamic meant hard going for a youth group. Fewer youths were interested and there were spare resources for Catholic teens who attend public schools.

When a woman with a master’s in theology stepped forward and offered to begin a youth group, Father Bachmeier acted, even offering her a stipend to give the ministry stability. Allyson Higgins has been leading the effort.

Father Bachmeier observes uncertainty in young Catholics, one result of a rapidly changing world and the fast pace of family life. He hopes the new youth group can address that.

“We want to give young people a foundation and a base,” Father Bachmeier says, expressing the hope that the parish will be affirming what youths learn at home. On the flip side, he realizes that young people might bring inspiring messages from youth group back to their families.  

The young people meet in the parish hall Sundays at 6:30 p.m. for prayer, games and snacks. They discuss God, personal identity and relationships.

On one night, girls gathered in one corner of the room with a leader and boys in the other to share experiences and learn Catholic wisdom on dating.

The teens examined the question: What is a good boyfriend/girlfriend like?

“There are good Catholic Christian ways to date,” Higgins told the group. “Love everyone, but be wise when it comes to who are your close friends.”

Higgins includes movement in the lesson plans.

“Hopefully our program will grow,” says Andrea Swanson, director of religious education at Holy Cross — and Higgins’ sister.

The sisters are lighthearted and seem unafraid to talk about personal faith.

Swanson spoke at Masses, including the Spanish liturgy, inviting young people to join. All the youths speak English, but about half come from Spanish-speaking families. Higgins makes sure to pair up people from different backgrounds.

Cooperation among cultures is like a holy grail when it comes to Catholic parish life — highly desired but elusive.  

Father Bachmeier, fluent in Spanish, says a good place to start is focusing on the basics — prayer, music, food.

When it comes to youth group, the teens who come get bound by the common experience. From there, the parents can meet and form friendships.  

Swanson and Higgins hope more and more public school kids will join in.

And they want youths to remember their faith all week, not just on Sundays. That’s why they sent each teen home with a candle that can be lit every day as a sign that Christ is their light.