Parish coat drives aid homeless, put faith into action

BRAINTREE -- A push to provide warmth to the homeless during these cold winter months started in one parish and has spread to others. As a result, over 1,000 homeless people will have access to a coat this winter.

Led by its ARISE program, a parish-based spirituality program run in various parishes across the Archdiocese of Boston recently, St. Pius V Parish in Lynn sponsored a winter coat drive that ended up netting 700 coats for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. The drive enlisted the help of the parish's social justice group, its school and religious education students.

Parishioners who coordinated the effort posted information on running a coat drive online so that other parishes could learn how to spearhead a similar effort in their own locales.

The information was utilized by at least two other parishes -- St. Jerome Parish in Weymouth and St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Charlestown. St. Jerome's collected over 300 winter coats and St. Mary-St. Catherine's collected over 100. Both parishes donated their collected coats to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.

"It's sort of a time-limited way for people to connect the Gospel to everyday life," said Sister Patricia Shea, SND, pastoral associate at St. Pius V and parish-wide coordinator of the ARISE program there.

Through an arrangement with Land's End, parishioners in Lynn had run a similar coat drive last year that gave individuals who donated an old coat 20 percent off the purchase of a new coat from the apparel retailer.

The drive's organizers were set to offer the same arrangement this year, but learned the offer from Land's End was a "one-time deal," said Sister Shea.

However, this year the parish continued the coat drive, publicizing it through the ARISE program.

Information such as signs and fliers, and bulletin and pulpit announcements were published online and shared with ARISE groups throughout the archdiocese.

Launched in 2008 in the Archdiocese of Boston, ARISE was a three-year program that aimed to foster spiritual renewal in parishes around the archdiocese. As part of the program, parishioners formed small groups that met periodically for faith-sharing, prayer and reflection. The program also encouraged participants to live their faith in the public sphere through performing various social justice initiatives, such as continuing the Lynn coat drive.

"People were getting together in small groups and they got to know each other," said Sister Shea. "They discovered, particularly last year, when we went over to the (Mass. Coalition for the Homeless) warehouse, it was fun getting together and heartwarming to help other people."

Sister Shea added that the call to action aspect of the ARISE program can be "challenging," and that during ARISE group meetings, participants reported on how they put their faith into action.

"It's not the easiest thing sometimes to follow through, but there's that extra incentive," she said.

In addition to coats, ARISE groups in Lynn collected gift cards for homeless youth.

At St. Jerome Parish in Weymouth, the coat drive was a "joint venture" between the parish's ARISE groups and families of religious education students, said Mary Ellen Cassani, director of religious education there.

Cassani said religious education students were asked to donate their old coats they have outgrown. Cassani also said that religious education staff discussed the plight of the homeless with their students.

She estimated that 100 of the coats the drive collected were brand new, with one donor donating seven new coats.

St. Mary-St. Catherine in Charlestown also hosted a coat drive, coordinated through the parish's religious education program, using the coat drive information received from St. Pius in Lynn.

Students in kindergarten through third grade at St. Mary-St. Catherine's made fliers announcing the drive and the older students sorted the coats brought by parishioners to Masses the weekend of Dec. 18 and 19.

Sally Walker, coordinator of religious education for the parish, said that service projects are a component of the religious education curriculum there.

"We feel it's important for a number of reasons, including it's a way of implementing what they're learning and taking it outside the classroom and making a better community," Walker said. "We also think it's a good way to keep that age group engaged."