Alpha offers new beginning in faith journey

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Sister Ricarda Vincent, SSJ, leads a discussion during an Alpha session held May 7 at St. Andrew Parish, Erie. (Photo by Rich Papalia)

FAITHLIFE staff report

Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. It’s also the name of a 40-year-old spiritual renewal program that has inspired hundreds of thousands of people around the world, including about 85 from the Erie region.

Sister Ricarda Vincent, SSJ, adult formation director at Sacred Heart Parish in Erie, introduced Alpha at the west Erie parish four years ago.

For those who have participated in the 11-week program, it’s been a way to begin a new relationship with Jesus and others.

“Alpha gives people an opportunity to talk about their relationship with Jesus in a way we don’t normally have the ability to do,” Sister Ricarda says. “It has changed the way people pray. Some of the people who have participated now meet in small groups.”

According to Linda Allen, a member of the Alpha core group at Sacred Heart, some of the men who attended the first Alpha program organized a prayer group that meets regularly at Wegman’s in Erie.

“They are growing and looking to start a second group,” Allen says.

Founded in an Anglican church in England in 1977, Alpha welcomes anyone, even non-churchgoers, to attend. Two-hour sessions extend over a period of 11 weeks, including a one-day trip. Participants share a meal, watch a video, and join in a discussion in a non-judgmental environment.

“It’s about developing relationships,” Allen explains.

Over a period of weeks, participants get to know each other and look forward to sharing their thoughts on the Christian faith. According to Allen, Alpha is not only for active parishioners, but anyone, even those who have left the church.

Many people have traveled from other towns in the Erie area, looking to experience Alpha and a new way to explore the Christian faith.

Currently, Alpha is in its fifth week at Erie’s St. Andrew Church, which is now a partner parish of Sacred Heart. The group meets Mondays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The next Alpha at Sacred Heart will begin on Tuesday, Sept. 11, from 6:15 to 8:30 p.m. For more information about Alpha, contact Sister Ricarda at Sacred Heart Church at 814-456-6256.


Mother and son show beauty of Down syndrome

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Nathan Englund and his mom, Diana, share a similar sense of humor and a desire to show the world that Down syndrome adds to a full life. (Photo by Mary Solberg)


When Diana Englund of Erie learned that her newborn son Nathan had Down syndrome, she worried about how people would treat him. She even wondered if the demands of caring for such a dependent child would snatch away her own freedom.

That was 23 years ago, and Englund, now 62, says, “Everything I worried about was useless. None of it ever came to pass.”

A parishioner of St. Joseph Parish/Bread of Life Community, Englund reflects on her life with Nathan in light of legislation currently before the Pennsylvania Senate.

House Bill 2050 (Down syndrome Protection Act) proposes to ban abortions based on a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives passed the bill April 16 by a resounding bipartisan vote of 139-56. Although the measure will be taken up by the Senate, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf already has expressed his opposition to it and could veto the bill.

“There’s no reason justified to abort a person with Down syndrome,” Englund says. “They’re such a joy to everyone. I have never met a parent who wasn’t happy with their child with Down syndrome and who didn’t love them to death. And I have never met a person with Down syndrome who says, ‘I have Down syndrome and I don’t like my life.’”

Englund’s fierce love for Nathan is obvious when the two sit across from each other. Their easy repartee indicates a lifetime of mutual care, appreciation, and even a shared sense of humor.

“She is a fantastic lady,” Nathan says, laughing. “She drove us on trips some summers. She is busy. She’s a likeable lady.”

Englund good-naturedly accepts the compliment, but adds that Nathan wasn’t so happy with her recently. She turned off his computer one night after he did not shut it down when she asked him a half-hour earlier.

“You were a little bit mad at me the other night,” she chides him, adding, “You said mothers should be merciful and I wasn’t being merciful. But we got over it.”

Any parent might empathize with this situation. But what’s exceptionally telling is how much Englund and her husband of 38 years, Richard, establish normal, everyday routines despite Nathan’s Down syndrome.

At 23, Nathan is considered high functioning. He reads at a fourth-grade level and graduated in 2015 from the Harborcreek School District’s life skills program.

After taking a year-long culinary arts class at Mercyhurst University’s North East campus, he got a job working part-time at Penn State Behrend’s dining hall.

He cuts meats at a food station and tends to the salad bar. He’s also an altar server at St. Joseph, where he participates in the parish’s Friendship Ministry, a program for people with intellectual disabilities.

The 10 members of the ministry do crafts, enjoy a Bible study and share a meal. Recently, Englund purchased a set of choir chimes so that the group could perform at local nursing homes.

“We’re going to nursing homes every other month now,” Englund says. “They’re happy to make other people happy.”

Nathan describes himself as “joyful.”

“I am…yep,” he says. “Life is good.”

Michele Inter, director of the Office of Disabilities Ministries for the Diocese of Erie, has watched Nathan contribute to the community on many levels. He offers assistance with Joy Ministries, a diocesan program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and he visits St. Joseph Church every Friday afternoon for a committed hour of personal prayer and adoration.

“Nathan has a true heart for service and a true heart for God,” Inter says.

Inter is lobbying for passage of House Bill 2050 so that the world may benefit from future Nathans.

The National Down Syndrome Society estimates that one in every 700 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome, making Down syndrome the most common chromosomal condition. About 6,000 babies with Down syndrome are born in the United States each year.

Aborting these babies, Inter says, would be a travesty.

“We would be missing the gift of pure love and pure joy, which those with Down syndrome give so wholeheartedly,” Inter says. “The Holy Spirit is working through them.”


Support the Down syndrome Protection Act

The Office of Social Justice and Life and the Office of Disabilities Ministries of the Diocese of Erie—along with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference—urge people to advocate for House Bill 2050, the Down syndrome Protection Act.

Under current law, a woman can obtain an abortion prior to 24 weeks gestational age for any reason if a physician deems it is necessary, except if the woman’s sole reason is to select the sex of the child. The proposed bill will expand that exception to prohibit aborting the child solely due to a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.

For more information about the bill and proposed action, go to


‘Go with the flow’



     Eleven-year-old Lily Bell poises her pencil just above the faint blue line of dashes on the off-white page.

She moves the lead tip to begin writing the first word of St. John’s verse about the law of love: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:12).

Lily’s effort may seem painstaking in its precision, but practicing cursive, she says, is actually fun.

“I like that when you do it [cursive] it just moves with your fingers and it looks really nice,” says Lily, a sixth-grader at St. Joseph School in Lucinda. “I kind of just go with the flow and it really looks neat.”

Lily and St. Joseph fifth-grader Kaitlyn Guth know a thing or two about the art of penmanship. Both were named this year’s Zaner-Bloser Pennsylvania State Grade Level winners in the annual Zaner-Bloser National Handwriting Contest. They are being considered for Zaner-Bloser’s Grand National Champion honor to be announced May 1.

“Hats off to them,” says their teacher, James Steudler, who has been instructing students in the proper methods of cursive for the past 38 years. During his career, he has taught at St. Joseph and at Holy Rosary School in Johnsonburg.

At age 63, Steudler represents the generation raised in the Palmer Method of handwriting. Penmanship was once considered a mainstay at all levels of education, both public and private.

But with the advent of computers, cell phones and keyboard instruction, handwriting seemed to be “put on the back burner,” he says.

Common Core standards do not require teaching cursive in public schools, but in the Diocese of Erie, it is expected, says Kim Lytle, curriculum director of diocesan schools.

“A growing body of research by psychologists and neuroscientists indicates that cursive helps to improve student comprehension of texts and to transform ideas into the written word,” Lytle says.

According to neaToday, an online publication of the National Education Association, studies “have shown that learning cursive not only improves retention and comprehension, it engages the brain on a deep level as students learn to join letters in a continuous flow. It also enhances fine motor dexterity and gives children a better idea of how words work in combination.”

Zaner-Bloser’s volume, Handwriting Research, states that “handwriting competency lays the groundwork for academic achievement.”

At St. Joseph, Steudler teaches his fourth- through sixth-graders the basic strokes of cursive, positioning of paper and pencil, and posture. He incorporates cursive in each academic subject. During his tenure, St. Joseph has had 13 state grade-level handwriting winners, two national-level winners, and one student named grand national champion two years in a row.

“Students need to write it and read it, especially when they go to historical places and see historical documents,” he says. “Hopefully, it doesn’t become a lost art.”

Principal Betsy Ochs believes students who practice cursive become better readers and writers.

“It teaches discipline, too,” she says. “When I watch them writing, I can’t believe their intensity.”

Cursive offers another benefit: pride. For grade-level winner Kaitlyn Guth, cursive is more “proper and prettier” than printing. She thinks everyone should give it a try.

“When I first started the writing competition, my hand would always shake,” Kaitlyn says. “Be confident; don’t be nervous.”

Couple honored with Helping Hands Award

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Ann and Charlie Rutkowski   (Contributed photo)


FAITHLIFE staff report

For Ann and Charlie Rutkowski, parishioners of Our Lady of Peace Parish, Erie, helping others is a Gospel mandate.

“We are motivated by the message Jesus gave us: love one another as I have loved you,” said Ann Rutkowski.

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Erie will present the couple with its prestigious Helping Hands Award May 12 at Erie’s Bayfront Convention Center.

Club CC Night recognizes and celebrates the good work of Catholic Charities in the 13 counties of the diocese in northwestern Pennsylvania.

For many years, the Rutkowskis have been active in their parish and in various charitable causes. Charlie Rutkowski, vice president of Industrial Sales & Mfg., Inc., is the president of the Serra Club of Erie. Ann Rutkowski is a member of the St. Mark Seminary Auxiliary and the board of Catholic Charities.

Charlie Rutkowski’s favorite quote is from Pope Francis, who said, “To live charitably means not looking out for our own interests, but carrying the burden of the weakest and poorest among us.”

They encourage others to volunteer in order to “make a difference.”

The Convention Center ballroom will be transformed May 12 into an intimate lounge as Catholic Charities celebrates its outreach to the needy.

Platinum sponsors for the evening are Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and Allegheny Health Network’s Saint Vincent Hospital.

For event and ticket information go to or call 814-824-1251.

Diocese confronts sex abuse history, updates child protection policy



     The Diocese of Erie—as part of a sweeping update to its Policy for the Protection of Children—announced on April 6 the names of 34 priests and 17 lay men and women who have been credibly accused of actions which disqualify them from working with children and youth.

These actions range from the use of child pornography to sexual assault of minors, and–in the case of inaction–failure to report abuse.

These offenses were committed in the northwest Pennsylvania diocese dating back as far as 1944. Twenty-one of the named priests and two of the named lay people are deceased.

By releasing the names of those accused, the diocese becomes one of only about 30 Catholic dioceses in the country that have published the names of priests accused of abuse. Even rarer is Bishop Lawrence Persico’s decision to release the names of credibly accused lay people who have worked in some capacity for parishes, schools, agencies, or for the diocese itself.

[Find an overview, a complete copy of the revised Policy for the Protection of Children, and the full list of names at]

“I want to express my sincere sorrow for the sexual abuse that has occurred within the church, particularly here in the Diocese of Erie,” Bishop Lawrence Persico said at a news conference April 6 at St. Mark Catholic Center. “I have met with victims and listened to the pain they and their loved ones experienced.”

Installed as bishop of the Diocese of Erie in 2012, Bishop Persico said offenses against children are “appalling,” but are even more heinous when committed by those in a position of trust.

“In publishing the list of those who have credible allegations against them, the first goal is to protect children,” Bishop Persico said, adding, “It is not possible for us to monitor all the people on the list. This is an important step in helping the public become aware of information that is important for the community’s well-being.”

He also said it was vital to publish the names “in the hope of helping the victims/survivors move one step closer to healing. It is important they know they are not alone.”

Grand jury investigation

The revisions to the Policy for the Protection of Children is one of the most significant changes to the diocesan policy since it was promulgated in 1986. Never before has the diocese released a list of credibly accused priests or lay people. The decision to do so comes at a time of increased transparency under Bishop Persico’s leadership and in the wake of a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation that began in 2016.

A grand jury is a panel of individuals brought together to hear evidence of alleged crimes and consider suspects brought to their attention by a state or federal prosecutor. In Pennsylvania, the state Attorney General’s Office is using the grand jury to investigate the handling of abuse cases in Erie and five other Catholic dioceses in the commonwealth.

Since it was subpoenaed with the other dioceses in September 2016, Erie has provided all its related files to the grand jury.

“With the help of outside lawyers and investigators, we have reviewed any files we could find that had anything to do with inappropriate behavior by people—both clergy and lay—working for the diocese itself, as well as any Catholic school or agency in the diocese between 1947 and 2018,” Bishop Persico said. (A separate case went as far back as 1944.)

The list of names includes the late Bishop Alfred M. Watson, who is credibly alleged to have received a report about the suspected sexual abuse of a minor but failed to act on that report.

The nearly two-year investigation, according to Bishop Persico, provided the diocese with an opportunity “to intensify the efforts we had begun making to gain a fuller understanding of our past.”

The grand jury is expected to release its report on all six dioceses sometime this year. That report, if it is anything like the 147-page document released in 2016 on the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, will name people credibly accused of committing abuse or covering it up.

On the web page of the updated Policy for the Protection of Children, the Diocese of Erie apologizes for past abuse by priests and others. But it acknowledges that “apologies…are not enough.” The significant revisions to its policy are part of a comprehensive response to the situation.

According to the policy page, “The Diocese of Erie is committed to regaining the trust of not only its parishioners but of all people.”

Long process of legal review, policy changes

     For more than a year, the diocese has worked with the Pittsburgh-based law firm K&L Gates to cooperate with the Attorney General’s Office and to update the diocesan Policy for the Protection of Children.

According to the bishop, the revised policy ( is among the most comprehensive in the nation. It is part of a larger effort to ensure child protection.

Since the 1980s, the Diocese of Erie has been developing policies, procedures and training programs regarding the protection of minors. It regularly works with law enforcement, medical experts, compliance experts and members of academia to ensure that it maintains a safe environment for children and other vulnerable populations.

But, in recent months, members of the bishop’s staff and administration, the Presbyteral Council and the Diocesan Review Board all have collaborated to review the revised policy and give their full support.

The updated Policy for the Protection of Children features several new components, including an expanded definition section and changes in supervisory procedures and conditions for employment. It streamlines reporting procedures and expands the roles of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth.

Specific updates include:

  • An expanded set of definitions that leave no doubt as to what constitutes abuse (sexual, physical, emotional and neglectful).
  • The Office for the Protection of Children and Youth will become the central depository of all allegations from any school, agency, parish or other source connected to the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Erie.
  • In addition to state clearances as a condition of working with children in the diocese, employees who work with children also will need a clearance from the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth. Any employers, whether public or private—as well as anyone supervising volunteers—may contact the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth to request a clearance for prospective employees.

Msgr. Edward Lohse, vicar general and director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, explained that schools principals and Catholic-affiliated agencies in the diocese will have to be in-serviced on the policy changes, which go into effect July 1, 2018.

In an effort to further secure children’s safety, all employees of parishes, schools, agencies, and of the diocese itself must agree to cooperate with child abuse investigations when necessary.

“All of these changes constitute one of the most significant updates to the child protection policy of our diocese,” Msgr. Lohse said. “It is proactive rather than reactive.”

Concern for victims is the priority

     Even before the grand jury investigation commenced two years ago, Bishop Persico maintained a transparent posture in the face of child abuse cases. Early in his tenure as bishop, he invited Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri to review the diocese’s files to determine whether accused priests could still be prosecuted under the statute of limitations.

But that was short-lived once the grand jury was empaneled.

Still, Bishop Persico has committed to releasing the names of priests and lay persons whom the diocese believes are disqualified by their actions—or sometimes by their inaction—to work with children.

“As Catholics, we believe the Lord has infinite mercy and absolution for those who are contrite and sincerely seek forgiveness,” Bishop Persico said. “But that does not mean they are free from the ramifications of their behavior.”

To report abuse

Pastoral care and compassion for victims, as well as the protection of children and vulnerable adults, is a top priority of the Diocese of Erie. The diocese encourages anyone who has experienced sexual abuse or misconduct by a member of the clergy or any employee or volunteer of the church to contact law enforcement. To report abuse to the independent investigators retained by the Diocese of Erie, email

In addition, victims or concerned individuals can report abuse to ChildLine, an outreach of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, by calling 800-932-0313. The line is open 24/7, and callers may choose to remain anonymous. Victims also are welcome to contact the diocese directly to report abuse at 814-451-1543. Counseling assistance is available for victims and/or their families through the diocesan victim assistance coordinator, Dr. Robert Nelsen, who can be reached at 814-451-1521. 


Diocese responds to opioid epidemic

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Joe Haas, left, CEO of Catholic Charities Counseling and Adoption Services, talks at the Feb. 22 meeting with clergy regarding the opioid epidemic. To his right is Dr. Steven Large, director, Health & Counseling Services, Gannon University.  (Photo by Anne-Marie Welsh)



Father James McCormick, pastor of St. James Parish in Erie, has buried at least 10 people who’ve succumbed to opioid addiction.

The statistic—while disturbing—is not surprising when considered alongside national figures showing that an estimated 64,000 people per year die from drug overdoses in the United States. Yet this eastside parish of 1,000 families has found itself in the crosshairs of the national opioid epidemic. Nearly all of the 10 funerals at St. James have involved inactive parishioners or someone who has a connection to families of parishioners.

Each death is a moment in which a pastor is called to be a compassionate shepherd.

“Anytime these events happen, I never preach from the pulpit,” Father McCormick said. “I always come down to the parents and say, ‘You are not responsible for this. This is a choice—although a bad one—that your loved one made. You cannot feel guilty about this.”

As a pastor, Father McCormick knows he must help families comprehend the misunderstood nature of the epidemic: addiction. Narcotics, particularly heroin, are highly addictive and can be mentally and physical difficult to confront and overcome.

As a member of the newly created Opioid Task Force of the Diocese of Erie, Father McCormick was happy to be part of a recent effort to inform clergy about the growing epidemic. On Feb. 22, the task force presented a panel discussion and resources to dozens of clergy who gathered in the Yehl Ballrooom at Gannon University in downtown Erie.

Under the direction of Ann Badach, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Erie, the task force offered practical and community-specific information regarding the reality of the opioid crisis. Introduced by Bishop Lawrence Persico, task force members offered their expertise in various areas, including drug and alcohol counseling, worship and education. There was a panel discussion, too, which included the perspective of diocesan priests Father John Jacquel, pastor of St. John the Baptist and Holy Rosary parishes, both in Erie, and Father Ross Miceli, pastor of St. Boniface Parish, Kersey, and campus minister for the Elk County Catholic School System.

“We all felt on the task force that our hearts were open to the Holy Spirit and we were able to make, hopefully, a significant contribution to the spiritual life of the Diocese of Erie,” Badach said. “It was powerful work, good work, holy work.”

Each priest in attendance at the February meeting was encouraged to share specially prepared prayer resources and other information with parishioners affected by the opioid epidemic. Another idea is for parishes to consider establishing parish action teams to explore ways to respond to the opioid crisis.

opioid_box  Father McCormick said he already has shared some of those newly developed resources with two families whose child and grandchild are addicted. He also will continue to offer a Mass held at St. James every Sept. 14 for those suffering from addiction and their families.

“I think people understand that the bishop and the diocese recognize this crisis,” Father McCormick said. “We can’t do a lot to end it, but we can certainly do a lot to bring comfort and healing to those affected.”

Hospice care offers hope and help

Lisa_To         For Lisa To, “everyday heroes” in life are those families and caregivers who accompany the terminally ill.

A nurse the past 32 years, To has spent the past five years as executive director of Hospice of Warren County. She sees up close the trials of those on the end-of-life journey.

“The families and caregivers of these patients provide unconditional love and support. That’s a beautiful thing to witness,” says To, who is a lifelong parishioner of St. Joseph Parish in Warren.

Born and raised at St. Joseph, To’s Catholic upbringing helps guide her chosen profession. Her mom, Joan Wozneak, also is a St. Joe’s parishioner.

“A huge part of life is empathizing with your fellow man. To be in a position to bring help and hope in situations generally thought to be hopeless is an incredible privilege,” To says. “There is a lot you can do as a human being and as a professional. For me, it’s all about ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’”

Working in hospice, she says, has taught her to be more at peace and to let go of feeling like she needs definite answers.

“It’s made me more confident that whatever is after death is OK,” To says. “I’ve seen situations in hospice where people talk and share stories at the end of life. It pays to listen to that. It can be very comforting.”

One area of hospice that is somewhat misunderstood is services for ill children, To adds. Hospice of Warren County serves adults and children, but most clients are adult patients.

“We just want to make sure folks know that this level of care is also available for children and their families,” To says. “People generally hear about hospice and know people who have experienced hospice services, but when it comes to their own situation, they often don’t want to talk about it. It’s interpreted as ‘death.’ It’s really about helping people to live as well and fully as possible with all they’re dealing with.”

Care for terminally ill children is such an important issue that the Pediatric Palliative Care Coalition (PPCC) is bringing a one-day conference to Erie on April 25 at UPMC Hamot Women’s Hospital.

As co-chairperson of the conference, To is hoping hospice and pediatric providers, as well as school personnel who care for seriously ill children, will take advantage of the program. Dr. Scott Mauer, medical director of the Supportive Care Program at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, will be the keynote speaker, addressing the topic, “Difficult Conversations in Pediatric Palliative Care.”

Mauer will then join an afternoon session with Lynn Weissert, a registered nurse with Great Lakes Home Health and Hospice.

“The patient and the family are at the center of any hospice and palliative care plan,” To says.