Passionist are go-to source for Mass cards

Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford, Conn., founded by the Passionist Fathers in 1951, is the largest parish-based retreat center in the United States and the second-largest of any retreat center. The center has changed over the years: In the mid-1980s there were many more Passionist Fathers in residence, as the retreat facility also once served as their senior-care facility. Now, there are 17 Passionist priests and brothers at Holy Family. However, the retreat center has changed in another way: Holy Family is reaping the benefits of this high-tech era.

All looks the same at first glance. The beautiful ivy-clad buildings and sprawling acres make it scenic for those on retreat. "People find Holy Family to be a place of peace," said Passionist Father David Cinquegrani, director of Holy Family. "Often people say that they feel at home in this setting because the art, the sacred spaces and grounds all of which express a welcoming place that many call 'holy ground.'"

While things may seem the same, Holy Family has expanded their offering of Mass cards by making them available online, which since 2001 has attracted customers from nearly all 50 states and from all corners of the globe, including England, Ireland, Italy, Italy, Japan, and Trinidad and Tobago, Australia, in addition to many countries in Latin America.

The increased volume from the online cards has been staggering; 50 percent of the Mass-card offerings come via the Internet. The Holy Family Mass-card office has two full-time lay employees, a director and an assistant, in addition to Passionist Brother William Drotar. There are also volunteers in the office and mailroom.

The Holy Family community has been pleasantly surprised by its decision nine years ago to go online. Proceeds from Mass-card offerings help fund their retreat center, which can hold up to 220 retreatants in addition to more than 30 community members. It has numerous chapels, conferences rooms and break-out spaces. The grounds are exquisite and include a new labyrinth, Stations of the Cross and several walking paths.

"Holy Family continues to promote its retreat programs through parish groups and the diocesan system, and this has kept the center thriving because the promoters focus on their own parish members," said Father Cinquegrani. "Their personal invitation to other parishioners is the single most important promotional tool to bring new retreatants to the center."

Mary-Ellen Mosher has been the director of the Holy Family's Mass-card office for 15 years and has overseen the expansion of what were once mainly Mass-card offerings for the deceased to offerings for countless occasions. Mosher said that the most popular cards other than the sympathy enrollments are the "get well," healing and birthday cards. Some of the many other occasions for Mass cards are birth, baptism, first Communion, graduation, marriage, wedding anniversary, confirmation, thank you or just plain "thinking of you." Gone are the days of Mass cards solely for sympathy offerings.

What attracts patrons of Holy Family is not only the wide range of Mass cards but also the beautiful card designs. Lisa Bureau, a Hartford area resident who has bought Mass cards at the monastery, is convinced the best Mass card offered by Holy Family is the one for a new baby, which has a picture of a beautiful new baby in a knit cap. "Many times it is expensive to ship a baby gift long distance. I find that this Mass card is always the best gift, and not because the price is considerably lower than a regular baby gift. I have always been told by the new parents that it was the most touching gift they received and that their baby be kept in the prayers of the monastery meant so much to them. It is also likely that no one else sends parents a Mass card so it is remembered more, too."

Mosher agrees that this Mass card is a favorite. "I think the picture is just so appealing and the text that says 'Angel song, Gift of God' bringing you to a comforting place where a child is such a gift that this gift is the song of angels."

All of the masses and prayers for the cards are said by the many Passionist communities, as well as on the premises of Holy Family. A requester will enroll a person either into the Altare Dei Society, which is a one-year enrollment, or the Benefactors Society (perpetual lifetime enrollment). Both of these groups are prayed for by the Passionist Fathers according to the type of enrollment chosen. Perpetual enrollments are remembered daily and the one-year enrollment individuals are remembered 100 times during a 12-month period.

Prior to 2001, for 50 years the Mass-card business was local, serving mostly northern Connecticut, with most patrons coming to the monastery and the rest calling on the phone or making a request by mail. Mosher said they have had some interesting communications over the years.

The most memorable request for a Mass card was one from a woman whose daughter was killed in 9/11 on the top floor of one of the twin towers. Mosher felt it hard to keep her composure as the woman told her over the phone how a few days before her daughter had just bought her wedding dress and had planned to marry very soon. "I could hear the suffering in her voice and had a hard time trying to speak to her without crying myself," said Mosher.

The woman was so appreciative of the Mass card from Holy Family that it reaffirmed to Mosher that Mass-card offerings are a ministry as well. With the Mass-card office online for almost 10 years now, Mosher said she has heard countless tragic stories from all over the country and all over the globe, but she is quick to add that there have been heartwarming ones as well.

Mosher said it is always a great pleasure for the staff of the Holy Family Mass-card office when a recipient of a card calls to say how much it meant to them and their family. There have even been international calls.

"We do get to reap the benefits of what we at Holy Family like to call a 'ministry,' when I hear how our Mass cards and folders affect a grieving family in need of prayer and comfort," said Mosher.

With Holy Family and other Mass-card organizations in the United States going online, the international offering in Mass cards works both ways as is evident "across the pond" at the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock in County Mayo, Ireland. The Knock Shrine receives many Mass-card requests from people of Irish descent in the United Kingdom and the United States, but patrons of the Mass cards from the internationally recognized Marian shrine come from all corners of the globe. The fact that the Web site of the Knock Shrine is translated into six languages cultivates a widespread following for the Mass cards. People wanting Mass-card offerings from the Knock Shrine need to fill out the information request form on the Web site and a prompt response will follow.

The Passionist Fathers who staff Holy Family are from the St. Paul of the Cross Province, which is one of two Passionist provinces in the United States, the other being the Holy Cross Province. There are now 300 Passionist priests and brothers in the United States. The Holy Family Monastery has been serving Catholic men and women through retreats for 60 years and this ministry is now greatly aided by their other ministry of offering Mass cards online to people all over the United States and in all corners of the world. "In this high-tech world of ours, we constantly hear about the evils that come with the Internet," said Bureau. "It makes me feel good to know that such an important ministry like retreats is being fueled by the offering off Mass cards over the Internet. Ironically, the word "catholic" means "universal"; the Internet has allowed the Mass cards offered by Holy Family to be Catholic in two senses of the word. I am heartened that people in other countries have the same access to the Mass cards as I do."

Lorusso writes from Terryville, Ct.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010