Parish nears a year in vigil
St. Agnes has special devotion

BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FORT WRIGHT — Seven minutes till midnight. Mary Ann Bowman is early.

She punches the security pad at the door. A green light flashes. Mrs. Bowman slips inside, signs the logbook and enters the chapel.

She is carrying a black pocketbook and wearing scuffed Nikes of the sort no longer found in stores. Fashion doesn't matter here. At this hour, people wear sweat pants. They yawn deeply and blow their noses.

They are here, though, and that is what matters.

For an entire year, the parishioners of St. Agnes Church in Fort Wright have carried out an extraordinary act of devotion: a 24-hour prayer vigil with the host. In the Catholic religion, this is bread that has been consecrated by a priest, thus becoming the body of Christ.

No other church in the Diocese of Covington is approved for such a monumental undertaking, and the diocese doesn't want to encourage its spread.

In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, perpetual exposition isn't even allowed.

St. Agnes parishioners spent three years organizing themselves and preparing documents for the diocese. Bishop Robert Muench approved their request, and on Jan. 4, 1998, the exposition began.

This is different from adoration, which occasionally takes place in Catholic churches throughout the region. Adoration involves lengthy prayer before host that is locked in a container called a tabernacle.

Exposition means the host is on display at all times. It cannot be left alone.

At St. Agnes, 400 parishioners commit to weekly or daily visits. They come at 3 a.m., at midnight, at noon, at 7 p.m., following a schedule overseen by a hierarchy of volunteers. They even have titles: hourly coordinators, divisional leaders, program administrators.

What takes place inside the chapel is as mysterious as the schedule is exacting.

People kneel on the tile floor to pay their respects. They read, pray, meditate, rest. Sometimes teen-agers cry.

“I have been surprised by how much I've enjoyed this,” says Jack Parker of Fort Mitchell, whose hour begins at midnight on Fridays.

One parishioner compares the experience to basking in the warmth of the sun. Another says his faith and commitment to others has deepened.

Rosemary Mullen arrives at 6 a.m. every Tuesday with her sons, who are 10 and 11. The boys' alarms ring an hour earlier than usual on this day. Sometimes they head straight for her bedroom. “OK, Mom, time to get up now,” they say.

While Mrs. Mullen prays, her sons sit quietly or read books from home. Then the three of them go out for breakfast and on to school.

Theresa Gray, mother of nine, comes in the middle of the night to pray for her family, her marriage, others in the parish.

“I always say, "This is your time, this is your hour with the Lord. Make it good,'” she says.

Mrs. Gray helped organize the exposition. Its success, she says, is a sign of people's hope.

“We are saying we've had enough of this godless society. There's got to be more, and we are seeking.”

St. Agnes' pastor, Father Donald Hellmann, was hesitant at first. At one time, the church had offered exposition for several hours once a week, but it was tough to get enough participants.

Diocese officials also had concerns.

Sister Madonna Kling, director of worship, says she admires St. Agnes' dedication but doesn't want to encourage exposition elsewhere.

It requires a very strong parish, she says — one that already has terrific participation in Sunday Mass, outreach programs, choir practice, donations to charity.

Without a strong foundation, exposition can distract people from these more fundamental activities, Sister Kling says.

“I'm never worried about the people who go there, the people who have the quiet time. I think that is fabulous. Our culture needs that.”

But she wishes more people would take advantage of the time already available before tabernacles in almost any Catholic church. Christ is present there, too; his presence doesn't change because it goes on display.

There are also theological concerns. National promoters of exposition sometimes portray God as “a lonely old man” who needs people to sit with him, Sister Kling says.

That's not true, she says. God isn't lonely. People are. And they can find him in church, where he has always been.

Perpetual exposition should be reserved for communities of nuns and priests, says Father Larry Tensi, worship director in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Expanding it to lay people dilutes the extraordinary mission of these religious orders, he says.

Besides, Catholic tradition isn't to gaze at the host but to share it together during Mass, as Christ did with his disciples at the last supper, Father Tensi says.

At St. Agnes, Father Hellmann is aware of the liturgists' concerns.

He doesn't get it.

This is prayer, he says. Prayer is good for people, and it has always been part of Catholic worship. The reality is that people are uniquely drawn to perpetual exposition, and “it's hard to get that commitment in any other way,” Father Hellmann says.

He doesn't think communities of nuns and priests will mind.

In the chapel behind St. Agnes, the clock's hands approach 1 a.m.

Jack Parker has joined Mrs. Bowman in prayer. They do not speak in the pews, but once outside they break into smiles.

Mr. Parker is chief financial officer for the parent company of Newport Steel. Mrs. Bowman runs her family's TV repair shop. Through their Thursday night vigils, they have become friends.

Tonight, Mrs. Bowman is talking about a friend's crazy Christmas card mailing, in which everyone's address is all wrong and none of the letters is likely to get anywhere.

Mr. Parker laughs. His friend goes on: An elderly neighbor, bless her heart, wants to come over for Christmas dinner, but not if certain others will be there. Mrs. Bowman takes care of this neighbor — checks on her every day — and she is used to the woman's ways. Still ....

She makes a face of mock exasperation.

Confusion, relatives, the holidays!

After all this, she says, she will need her hour with the Lord.

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com

SAMPLES ARCHIVE