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St. Henry prayer service serves athletes from adjacent public school

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Students, community members and Deacon Randy Balster gather for the first Friday morning prayer service of the school year Aug. 29 at St. Henry church in St. Henry, Ohio. After years of hosting a Friday morning Mass that was well attended by St. Henry High School student-athletes, the church has decided to host a prayer service to keep the tradition alive despite a lack of priests. (CT Photo/John Stegeman)

By John Stegeman
The Catholic Telegraph  

The name is misleading for those from outside the region, but St. Henry High School is a public institution. That fact could be misleading as well, because on game days this season you’ll find most of the St. Henry High School football team in church.

Junior lineman Justin Rindler assists Deacon Randy Balster with the incense during an Aug. 29 prayer service. (CT Photo/John Stegeman)

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The tradition of a game day Mass during various athletic seasons stretches back many years at the aptly named St. Henry church in the heavily Catholic town of St. Henry, Ohio. Basketball and football players, among other Redskins’ student-athletes, were known to start their game days by attending the 7:30 a.m. Mass at the nearly adjacent St. Henry church.

No one is sure when it started, but the tradition seemed likely to end this year when the reassignment of an associate pastor left the five-parish cluster with only one priest. Faced with the end of Friday morning Mass at St. Henry church, a member of the laity came up with a creative solution and reached out to Deacon Randy Balster.

More students than just the St. Henry High School football team attended the Aug. 29 prayer service and fellowship at St. Henry Church. (CT Photo/John Stegeman)

Morning Mass on Friday’s is now down the road at St. Wendelin, one of four other parishes in the cluster led by Precious Blood Father Tom Hemm. In lieu of a Football Friday morning Mass, St. Henry’s deacons — Deacons Balster and Jerry Buschur — will lead a weekly prayer service instead. Following prayer, there’s time for donuts and fellowship in the parish basement before school. Balster said it was a mother of a football player who came up with the idea.

“One of the football moms sent me an email several weeks ago saying, ‘Can we have a prayer service since we can’t have a Mass?” he said. “I said, ‘Well yeah, we can do that.’ We ended up with a real simple format. It’s just a Liturgy of the Word. We’re going to put the Blessed Sacrament out and have a short little homily and benediction. Then they’ll run downstairs for donuts and off to school they go. … It came forth from one of the football moms asking.”

The football moms do their part too, serving the food and drink downstairs after the service.

The tradition of game-day Mass attendance had died down a bit over the past decade, but football players brought it back a couple years ago. Their interest and participation is part of the prayer service’s success.

The first such prayer service at St. Henry church was Aug. 29 at 7 a.m. Between 50-60 students, as well as several members of the community, were present. Around 40 of that number wore their St. Henry High School football jerseys. Altogether, about 70 worshippers attended.

Members of the St. Henry High School football team enjoy fellowship and donuts following the Aug. 29 prayer service. (CT Photo/John Stegeman)

A Catholic himself, St. Henry High School football coach Brad Luthman was pleased to see so many of his players in attendance. He said most of the team was there.

“They come from great families, our kids do,” he said. “I think, and this was true for me too, growing up in a tight knit Catholic family in this area, it is nice to see the community at large also practicing their faith… To see that other people believe the same things we believe is really important.”

Despite St. Henry High School being a public school, Luthman doesn’t think the morning prayer service skirts any legal boundaries. The football players at the service sat together, but not with their coach, who was several rows behind.

The 175-year-old St. Henry church is a hotbed of activity for public school students from the nearly-adjacent St. Henry public high school. (CT Photo/John Stegeman)

“We’re not forcing anyone to be here,” Luthman said. “Donuts are a great incentive and everything. We’re not forcing our beliefs on anybody. Most of them are fairly homogenous in the Catholic faith. It comes down to the families. There’s some people that aren’t here, and many that are.

“None of us (coaches) are getting up there,” he added. “It is nice to have Deacon Balster and other clergy lead the prayer service so they’re speaking with authority and it isn’t like having a coach up there spouting their beliefs.”

Junior Justin Rindler was among those in attendance Aug. 29. Wearing his No. 79 jersey, the offensive lineman assisted as a server. He’s been serving at Mass as long as he’s been able.

“I think it’s really cool that everyone wants help and keep this tradition going even though we lost a priest a little bit ago,” Rindler said.

Rindler, who regularly attended the 7:30 a.m. Mass last year, said that the student turnout was about the same as for the Mass.

Father Hemm said it wasn’t easy determining how to shift the Mass schedule while shepherding five parishes at once. A benefit however is that non-ordained members of the community have been stepping up to take ownership of what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once called the “co-responsibility of the laity.”

“We prayed a lot for guidance,” Father Hemm said. “What I’ve seen is people are becoming more aware of what we all seem to know but what is hard to face up to. That there is a shortage of clergy, at least short term….People are becoming more aware of this and taking more initiative.”

After the prayer service, the students mingled downstairs for roughly a half hour enjoying donuts, orange juice and each other’s company. Despite being up early, the students showed no signs of being tired or disinterested.

“The perception is that our faith is kind of boring, among kids that age,” Deacon Balster said. “This helps them to see that our faith is lived, and that it isn’t all up in church.”

St. Henry Church is located in the northwestern part of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, roughly 15 miles south of Celina. Its parish cluster includes St. Henry, St. Wendelin, St. Aloysius, St. Bernard and St. Francis.

Posted Sept. 2, 2014

This story is a www.TheCatholicTelegraph.com exclusive.

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