It is the stated intention of the Orthodox Church in America’s Church Planting Grant Program to provide financial assistance to enable priests in fledgling missions to serve full-time. And according to Priest Andrew Cuneo, “the happy result of this for Saint Katherine Mission is that it meant the parishioners could be full time, too.
“I give every ounce of credit for the growth, warmth, and fervent prayer of this community to the parishioners themselves,” says Father Andrew, the mission’s founding priest. “We used to have 50-60 folks at Sunday Liturgy when our Planting Grant began in 2014; we now average near 100. We used to hold only two services a week; we now have a holy service every day but Monday.”
Receiving a Planting Grant offers a mission critical income, for certain; however, adds Father Andrew, “there is a structure that has been there every year of the Grant.
“The Diocese of the West nurtures all the missions in their Mission Deanery through specific mentorship, annual retreats, and tactical advice for attainable growth,” Father Andrew continued. “The OCA Department of Evangelization also plays a role each step of the way. Every month, our mission is asked, ‘What did we do for growth? How did we pray for it? How are you as a mission building leadership, stewardship, a building fund, and outreach? Reporting numbers every month about all services, attendance, sacraments, visitors, donations, and activities encourages us to ask the right questions and monitor the real results.”
One bit of crucial data is that within north San Diego County, Saint Katherine’s is the only English-speaking Orthodox Church for over 300,000 residents.
“Just as a Bishop’s care concerns all the population of his diocese, so too does a mission open each day allow for anyone to come in for an encounter with a community that is present,” Father Andrew noted. “Dr. Albert Rossi always advised us to say ‘yes’—yes to God, yes to every opportunity to minister and share God’s healing Gospel. So the past three years of on the grant have presented a string of opportunities: a retired army ranger drops in and asks, can you pray for my deceased brother? Yes. Others ask, can you bless my house? My car? My office? My deployment? Yes. Can you meet with my co-worker’s mother who has cancer? Yes. Someone calls from another state asking, can you visit my mother, a 45-minute drive away? She is dying. Yes. Can you talk to the OCF about relationships? Yes. Can you speak on C. S. Lewis at a Protestant church Friday night? Yes.”
Father Andrew added that he’ll never forget the stranger who walked up to him in Target and said, “my husband is abusing me. I’ve left home. Can you simply pray for me?”
“Another yes,” Father Andrew said. “The Planting Grant makes all of this possible, for the priest and parishioners can thus serve myriad needs. Let us never forget that the needs and opportunities are real.”
Father Andrew added that one of the most satisfying results of the Planting Grant has been the way it enables active parishioners to want more.
“They taste and experience a vital Orthodoxy and they want to pursue their salvation more zealously,” he said. “They catapult around the world to visit Mt. Athos, Russia, and other traditionally Orthodox lands.”
One parishioner commented, “the local growth the grant has facilitated has left us not just reading books about Saint Paisios and Saint Nektarios, but wanting to venerate their relics. We want to walk where they walked and pray where they prayed. And we want to build a church like the churches we see.”
After receiving the Planting Grant for three years, Saint Katherine’s now labors in God’s good time no longer to be a mission, but a parish.
“It’s time for us to leave the nest, to acknowledge the great gift the Planting Grant has been, and to fly with our own wings,” Father Andrew concluded. “We in turn want to be a parish in the coming years that supports another new mission. If God, through the prayers of Saint Katherine, honors this wish, then nothing will stop it. Please pray for us.”