WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Monica Bober stands at the baptismal font in St. Thomas More Church, the parish where she helps prepare parents and their children for the sacraments, as well as performing other duties.
Perry Kieftenbeld, a horticulturalist by trade, got involved with the Church in the Sturgeon Region as her five children started getting more drawn into the Church's youth activities.
In 2001, she was hired as pastoral assistant and youth minister at St. Peter's Parish in Villeneuve. The church has three mission parishes in Calahoo (St. Catherine), Mearns (St. Charles) and Riviere Qui Barre (St. Emerence). The four parishes in total have about 400 families.
Now, with 10 years on the job, she has worked for six priests, and gone to four World Youth Days.
Having the title "pastoral assistant" in front of her name, people feel comfortable approaching her about spiritual matters, which she views as a gift of her ministry.
"I'd be hard-pressed to find a job that is so spiritual, so life-giving to other people," said Kieftenbeld. "There are so many times as a pastoral assistant people come to you and they want to talk about their brother who has died and where he is. It's amazing how people really look for that spiritual connection."
All in all, the working conditions are excellent. She can put her family first, take summers off, work out of her own home, take time off as required and her wages increase periodically. Her greatest joy is the people she gets to work with, the friendships, and how close they can get at a spiritual level.
At the annual Pastoral Assistants Days, the most recent being June 1 at Providence Renewal Centre, she discovered that there are no set guidelines for what a pastoral assistant does.
"Whenever we sit talking, it's amazing how many of us have different job descriptions," said Kieftenbeld. "It comes out of where you are, the church you're in, and the priest you have, and what their needs are. You have to morph into what you think your job should be."
Without a theology background, she initially questioned some Church teachings. But the more she learned, the more accepting she became of the doctrines. She is convinced that the Holy Spirit helped her learn along her journey. Now she better understands what the Church believes, and the reasons for those beliefs.
"There are so many misconceptions about what our Church believes. I'd bring in John MacDonald (former family and life director for the archdiocese) to speak on homosexuality and same-sex attraction," said Kieftenbeld.
"When you actually read what the Catechism says, it's not what the old granny in the back pew says that they're going to rot and go to hell. It's that we're to love and take care of these people."
Monica Bober's dream job, since she was in her 20s, was to work in a church. One day she went to St. Thomas More Church to attend her niece's First Communion. At the time she was working as an activity coordinator at a seniors' apartment. On the bulletin board was a job posting for a pastoral assistant. She applied and landed the job.
The job turned out to be far more time-consuming than she ever imagined. But she calls the job a gift because it prompted her to learn more about her faith.
"I've been here since September 2007. It's been very rewarding, challenging and busy - much busier than I ever anticipated it to be. It's not a job where you come and away you go. It requires you to work days, evenings, weekends," said Bober.
Aside from being a practising Catholic and doing some volunteer work, she had no formal training. Most of what she knew about her faith was through her own personal research. She read books determinedly about Catholicism and thirsted for more.
"I've learned a lot about how a sacrament works and what's required, and you learn a lot about canon law. I didn't realize there are so many details about the Catholic faith," she said.
She oversees Baptisms, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Children, and the catechism program, and she also assists the funeral coordinator. Now she is also preparing 20 youth for World Youth Day. Since the parish is so large, a sacramental assistant handles Reconciliation, Communion and Confirmation programs.
What she finds the most rewarding is that every day is different from the next.
"It's never the same day twice. I can come in here at 9 o'clock, and although I might have an appointment with a couple to help them prepare for Baptism, their situation will be unique from the couple I saw the day before," said Bober.
"All the people I meet have their own stories, their own needs."
She has seen some negative trends during her five-year tenure. She has seen fewer people taking an interest in living their faith.
More couples are getting married by a justice of the peace, outside of the Church. Strongly influenced by the outside society, a lot of young people do not have an active faith life.
Another frustration is the attitude of some parents. When she sees parents come to church only for their children's Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation, but do not attend Mass regularly, those children will follow their lead.
Like their parents, they will go through the motions, but never become full, active participants in the Church.
"Children are smart, and they see how you live your faith. If they see you living your faith, they know you're for real, and you're genuine. If you don't live your faith, they will see that too and become like you," said Bober.
Ann Harding has worked as pastoral assistant at St. Dominic Savio Parish for 17 years, since April 1994. Starting as a part-time position when her kids were young, it eventually turned full-time. She took courses about the sacraments at Newman Theological College and learned more as she went along.
Leading children's sacramental preparation has been her forte. She does preparation for First Communion, Confirmation and Reconciliation.
At a later age, people question the teachings of the Church, and for that reason, Harding enjoys ministering to the children who are more compliant.
"Children are innocent, children are accepting, and they really don't question too much," she said. "Confirmation, that group is more of a challenge. It's not that I don't believe what I am teaching, but I wonder how receptive they are."
Many of them, Harding said, are only in Confirmation classes at their parents' behest.
Her biggest struggle was finding comfort working for so long with the same priest, Father Bernie Gilliece, and then facing changes when a new priest, Father Joseph Vadassery, took over about a year ago.
Making the adjustment proved difficult at first.
"We were probably set in our ways having the same pastor for 15 years, and change is hard. Father Joseph has valid points, and you have to change the way you think.
"You get going down one path, and then Father Joseph would turn things around and get us thinking about other ways of doing things."
From when she started 17 years ago, she has seen the number of Baptisms and marriages drop considerably.
Students from nearby schools come to the church for celebrations, and, as a catechist, Harding tries to maintain that close connection with the young people. She has had to adjust recently for changes to administration in those schools.
"We're trying to get that connection a little more between home, school and church. I always talk about that, the triangle we try to establish. When the admin changes in your schools, sometimes that connection is a little harder to reestablish," said Harding.