Fall may be falling all across America, but in Sarasota, Fla., the new Community of the Epiphany is flowering. In St. Albert, Alberta, Canada, Catholic Family Ministries is in bloom. They are just one of several new aposto-lates serving the family. This week, the Register looks at three.

“Our mission is the renewal of the family and renewal of the faith,” says Sister Gilchrist Cottrill, who founded the Community of the Epiphany in the mid-'90s. “We're trying to get families charged up about their faith and taking responsibility for it.”

The unique community combines lay and religious members. Sister Cottrill explains that Pope John Pau II's 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (On the Consecrated Life) calls for new communities with new visions and a mixture of consecrated and lay people.

Why name the group for the Epiphany? “The Magi saw a family — a mom, dad and baby,” Sister Cottrill says. “God has chosen to be present to us within the family unit.”

And the family is the prime setting in which most Christians are called to live out Christ's Sermon on the Mount. For that reason, the community focuses in a special way on that part of the Gospel. “We feel the Beatitudes will soften our hearts so we can show forth the compassion of Christ in the families and in our ministries,” Sister Cottrill says.

Take “Blessed are the Merciful,” for example. One of the main aims the Epiphany community strives for is healing relationships within families. “We're urging people to get rid of their grudges and let go of past things so people can move on.”

Epiphany members Ken and Joyce Miller reflect on ways they've put the Beatitudes into action. “We try to practice being humble and meek, and we try to teach our children that,” Joyce says. “It's never easy to be a follower of Christ, but we try. Our motto in this house is: Kind, Gentle, Loving.”

Ken says he believes the outreach will bring “more of these young families in to improve their faith, which is going to improve their marriage and their relationships with their children.”

The Millers are part of the apostolate's Families Forward, a program in which families mentor other families. Families in crisis are paired with members who have gone through a similar trauma. They deal with problems ranging from siblings not getting along to grandparents raising grandchildren alone.

The vision for the community came to the founder, then a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame, while at prayer in 1996. Sister Cottrill calls the period a “moment of grace” and credits her spiritual director, the late Holy Cross Father Thomas Conmy, for help and inspiration — especially with “his whole 12-step spirituality for the family.”

Sister Cottrill saw the great need for family life and religious life, both struggling in the United States, to help each other grow and become more stable.

This summer, Bishop John Nevins of Venice, Fla., named the community a public association of the faithful, and Sister Cottrill professed her vows as the first nun in it. Epiphany Community is hooking up with Ave Maria University, now in the diocese; Sister Cottrill will run the special-education department at the Naples campus.

“Bishop Nevins is not only supportive but he's also greatly devoted to the Community of the Epiphany,” says Dr. Terry Reilly, who with his wife, Mimi, is co-director of the Department of Ministries for the Diocese of Venice. “We encourage and endorse the apostolic work of the community.”

To date, 30 families, two candidates in consecrated life and several aspirants “who have come by way of the Holy Spirit” meet regularly at the community house on diocesan land in Sarasota. Sister Cottrill describes them as “a very joyful group.”

Joyce Miller is sanguine about the group's prospects.

“We're really going to bring faith back to the family unit,” she says, “and this means that there will be less divorce, less crime, less drugs, less alcohol, less dropouts and more prayer. We're going to bring Christ back into homes.”

Pray, and Stay Together

Thankfully, the Community of the Epiphany is not wanting for company to compare notes with.

On Topsail Island, N.C., the Christian Family Living Center runs a summer family program developed years ago by Marianist priests. Today's program is lay-run, says Judy DiCostanzo, whose husband, Joseph, is the director.

The goal is to build strong, Christ-centered families in the Diocese of Raleigh by modeling “affirmation, communication, forgiveness and commitment” for families, she explains. Daily Mass, benediction, the rosary and other forms of prayer are part of the program. Priests other than Marianists also assist, such as a Maryknoll priest.

And in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada, Catholic Family Ministries works to follow the Holy Father's call in Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Family in the Modern World, 1981) and to build holy families through their annual conferences at the shrine of Lac Ste. Anne.

Maurice Beier, his wife, Vicki, and four others co-founded this 8-year-old ministry, which has the blessing of the Edmonton Archdiocese. Schedule permitting, Archbishop Thomas Collins sometimes joins the families for the annual event.

“Families come here to hear the truth and be challenged in their faith,” Beier says. “They come to encourage and support one another in raising Catholic families — children that will know and practice their Catholic faith.”

Dads, moms, sons and daughters come to hear speakers such as Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, Father John Corapi and Karl Keating. There's emphasis on confession and the Eucharist, and devotions including the rosary, Divine Mercy chaplet and Eucharistic adoration.

Even teens seem eager to learn more about their faith lately, Beier says. Sometimes, the interest translates into vocations. Already, four Catholic Family Ministries boys are attending minor seminary. And the ministry now includes a Men of Integrity conference, a November marriage conference with Christopher West and a new women's conference in March.

Thanks to the outreach, families such as Charles and Jeri Marple and their eight children have grown in their faith. Their son Chuck, 19, is involved with the ministry to his peers, focusing on children-parents communication. Sarah, 18, is actively involved in several pro-life initiatives.

“It's increased the questions in terms of apologetics from the kids — how to answer questions on the faith and defend the faith,” their father says. Son Jeffrey, 14, studies the Catechism to learn to explain the faith to non-Catholics. And the Marples try to go to daily Mass together.

The Catholic Family Ministries have made a difference for Kevin and Mary Lawless and their family, too. Mary appreciates the determination “to present the truth of the faith in its entirety.” She says once they “heard the Church's true teaching on pro-life and what that means living it out in daily life,” their lives changed. Her husband, who had a vasectomy, went to confession to an Opus Dei priest who suggested a reversal.

“Once we had the reversal, we left it in God's hands whether we'd conceive another child,” Mary says. Although they haven't done so yet, they've adopted a girl from China, now 3, who joins their family of five biological children.

Numbers of couples have asked them for contacts for reversals. As a physician, Kevin has recommended doctors. “One woman spoke to her husband, who had a reversal,” Mary says, “and they've had a baby boy.”

“I have no idea how [many] other babies have been born since God provided us with the truth and Kevin and I have been living out the Catholic faith,” Mary continues. “Or the number of people who have had their fertility restored through what they heard at Catholic Family Ministries.”

Once families “learn the truth,” she adds, “most of the time they are convicted to live this truth.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.