Parish life at Houston's Queen of Peace Church was running on empty. There were few lay ministries, Mass attendance was low and school enrollment was edging toward extinction. By the accounts of parishioners who prayed their way through the lean years, the inner-city community sorely needed … well, some thing.
God responded to the prayers, say those same parishioners, with a someone. Or, more accurately, several of them: Father Christian Riesbeck and his new religious community, the Companions of the Cross from Ottawa. Father Riesbeck came to Queen of Peace in the fall of 1999 as pastor and three other priests from his community came to staff the local Catholic Charismatic Center. Together, it seems, they set off a firestorm of the Holy Spirit.
When the new priests arrived, Queen of Peace had about 800 families on the parish rolls. Four years later, that number had doubled. The religious-education classes mirrored that rate of growth — enrollment is now up to 600 students — and the school boasts a modest but growing student body of 140. Most parishioners are Hispanic, with a large number of newly arrived Mexicans. To serve them better, Father Riesbeck spent seven weeks in Mexico learning Spanish before taking up his pastorate.
Father Riesbeck “was given a parish that nobody else wanted. Pastors would leave after a year or two in the past,” says Deena Wolf, who teaches religion at Queen of Peace School. “Now our parish is thriving. I hear constantly from the children that Father Christian has brought them closer to God. Many of them are expressing interest in the priest-hood. Parents send their children to our school because of Father Christian. Our school was close to being shut down before he arrived.”
“Father Christian has gone above and beyond the call of duty,” says Mica Espinosa, who prepares children for the sacrament of confirmation and leads a youth program. “God has sent us an angel in our midst. He is firm and to the point and does not sugarcoat his teaching. He speaks the truth about what the Church teaches.”
Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston has called Father Riesbeck “a very good and zealous priest who's doing a very good job at one of our Hispanic parishes.”
Recalling his early days as the only resident priest at the parish, Father Riesbeck says: “I was alone, a young new pastor with five Sunday Masses to celebrate. There were no sacristans. In fact, after every Mass, because of the tight schedule, I would have to run back to the sacristy and get ready for the next Mass with just enough time for a quick restroom break.”
Three of the five Masses on Sunday are offered in Spanish, as well as one of the two Saturday evening Masses.
The church also was in a fast-advancing state of disrepair. “I found out after a heavy rainstorm that the new flat roof that had just been installed over parts of the church was leaking,” he says. “The sacristies started flooding and I found myself on the roof trying to brush off the water to minimize the damage. It took almost 10 return visits from the roofers to get it fixed.”
After a month of this exhausting routine, his fellow priests at the Catholic Charismatic Center rearranged their schedules to help Father Riesbeck on weekends.
Once the weekly routine and leaky roof were settled, it was time to attend to the spiritual needs of the parish.
Father Riesbeck formed a youth group and an evangelization committee. A small group of zealous parishioners were trained to run adult catechism classes and go through the neighborhood inviting people to return to Mass.
“There were 200 students preparing for first Communion and many of them were not even attending Sunday Mass,” Father Riesbeck says. “We realized that we needed to start evangelizing the parents as well and started classes for them.”
The parish hired a business manager to take care of the finances and deal with vendors, installed a new rectory staff, opened a St. Vincent de Paul Society chapter to take care of the poorer families in the area and formed a Knights of Columbus council to activate the lay apostolate.
“We have more than 300 volunteers involved in various ministries,” Father Riesbeck says. The parish was shaping up, but the pastor still had a dream.
In Adoration Falling
One of the goals Father Riesbeck had when he arrived was to establish perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. This goal was realized a little more than a year and a half into his pastorate.
He turned the church's crying room into a round-the-clock adoration chapel. Parishioners sign up for an hour or more of adoration each week. “Since I was ordained a priest, it was my dream to see a perpetual adoration chapel instituted wherever the Lord would send me,” he says. “I was overwhelmed by the response and since Easter of 2001, Jesus has been adored in the Blessed Sacrament around the clock in our chapel.”
“I can see how the parish has changed over the years,” says Paul Blubaugh, who attended the parish grammar school in the 1970s and was married in the church in January. “Father Christian is into experiencing Jesus in a very personal way. He has helped me in that regard to renew my faith and become more active in the church.”
Wolf concurs. “Father Christian teaches all catechists and school teachers that we must evangelize first,” she says. “He tells us that everyone must first develop a personal relationship with Jesus. He stresses this from the pulpit. The miracles that have happened because of this are astounding. Many who had turned away from the Church are now coming back.”
Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.