6 Tips to Help You Start a Parish Sacristan Program

Here are some simple steps to help you set up your very own sacristan program

(photo: Courtesy of Holy Name Parish, via CNA)

Ever since Catholic News Agency wrote an article mentioning the sacristan program at my parish (and then this follow-up about the origins of the program), I’ve received emails and messages with requests for more information. Priests, deacons, and parents seem to be interested in knowing just how exactly they might start something similar, in their own respective churches. 

The Holy Name sacristan program, more formally known as the Sacristans of St. Thérèse, has gone through phases over the years. At times the sacristy has been overflowing with girls eager to serve, and at others it’s been more difficult to find that sort of commitment. Arriving early for Mass (and then staying a little longer afterward) obviously requires some sacrifice and planning ahead on the part of a sacristan’s family, not to mention the training, preparation and scheduling necessary for a deacon or priest to reasonably depend upon the girls for help. 

But instituting a parish sacristan program is both a beautiful and worthwhile endeavor for a parish. It will certainly require some forethought and effort — and especially so if girls are presently serving at the altar, alongside boys, which would then obviously necessitate a shift in thinking about the whole matter — but it will no doubt be worth it.

As we move through the summer and look toward a new year, the sacristans at Holy Name are getting back into the swing of things. A new schedule has been set, a new woman has stepped up to take charge (frankly I just didn’t have the time to invest), and new life has been breathed into an important yet occasionally challenging group to keep going.

So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to address the questions I regularly receive about the program. Hopefully it will be helpful for anyone wondering about how, exactly, a girls’ sacristan program might work! 

If you think you might like to implement this in your own parish, you will first and foremost need a priest and/or deacon interested in pursuing the idea. If there’s no support from the top, or even a perceived need for the program, then it’s going to be a difficult sell! Second, you will want to have a mother (or two) able to take charge of the group. Hosting teas and trainings, setting the schedule, and promoting the idea to families is far beyond the scope of your pastor, and will ultimately fall to a lay person. Finally, it is critical to spread the word to the girls of your parish. If you have a Little Flowers group (or other similar club for girls) already, consider merging the two. That has perhaps been the single most helpful thing in rebooting our sacristans!

Now I have to tell you that I have also received some negative feedback regarding our humble little program. No one doubts that encouraging both girls and boys to serve Jesus — and their parish community — in the Holy Mass is of monumental importance. It strengthens the participant’s faith, offers a window into the sacred, and affirms the truths we Catholics believe about the Real Presence. But it also has the potential to highlight the beauty of God’s plan for men (which of course includes the possibility of the priesthood), versus His plan for women. Personally, I believe a strong girls’ sacristan program will flourish best alongside a strong altar boys’ program. 

And it’s probably no surprise that the most common objection I’ve observed or heard in relation to the sacristan program is really more a criticism of the notion of exclusively male altar servers. And, I get it. We live in a time when the going assumption tends to be that if a girl can do something, then she absolutely should do something.

But historically, a boy served at the altar as a sort of priest’s apprentice — not only to be of assistance to the cleric, but also to be trained to perhaps one day be a priest himself. It is also a reality that there is a camaraderie that arises when a group of boys is formed in service of a common mission. The opposite (and the point that is most relevant here) could also of course be said of girls, and of the sweet sisterhood that naturally springs up around laughter and conversation and service.

These are the benefits I try to explain when I’m approached by someone wishing their daughter could be up at the altar versus back in the sacristy. It’s only ever actually happened once, and it really wasn’t a huge deal. I understand why it may seem unnecessary to have these gender distinctions, especially since many mothers my age grew up serving at the altar. To them, it seems arbitrary and terribly old-fashioned. 

I’d humbly suggest, though, that it also works. Our parish has no small number of boys, ranging in age from lower elementary to the teen years, serving at the altar week after week. They take their responsibilities seriously, have good relationships with the priest and deacon, and they’ve also developed strong friendships with one another. Conversely, we also have a long list of girls giving of their time and talents in the sacristy, arriving early to Mass and staying afterward to lovingly care for the sacred vessels. A little bit of rivalry can be kind of fun, too: each year, the Knights of Columbus put on an appreciation dinner for the altar servers and sacristans, which includes a rousing game of jeopardy. There are three teams: the altar servers, the sacristans, and the Knights, competing against one another to see who know the most about subjects like the Mass, and Catholic history. 

So if you’re still reading, and if any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, here are some very simple steps you can follow to set up your very own sacristan program:

1. Sit down with your priest and/or deacon, and determine what the necessary tasks are in the sacristy. Which steps will the girls need to follow, where are various items kept, and what exactly will be expected of the sacristans before and after each Mass? Furthermore, who will be eligible for being a sacristan? We have always asked that girls receive their First Holy Communion before joining the program.

2. Set a date and time with your priest to host a Tea and Training. (We’ve always done this in our church hall on either a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.) Then promote, promote, promote! Send out a nice evite to all of the girls who’ve received their First Holy Communion, and encourage them to dress in tea attire. Place an announcement in your church bulletin, and consider having someone make an announcement up front before or after each Mass. The more girls who show up, the better!

3. The tea can either be for just the girls, or girls and their mothers. (For the first one at least, I’d suggest including moms.) This is your opportunity to tell people about the program and outline the expectations. After enjoying food and hearing your presentation, the girls should attend a priest-led training in the sacristy. There will be a lot to go over, but they’ll get the hang of it. (At this point your priest may consider giving the girls a special blessing in the church or chapel, and/or presenting them with a saint medal. These small touches really bring home the importance and value of what the girls are doing.) 

4. Send out a schedule. We assign two girls to be in the sacristy per Mass. It is their responsibility to find a replacement (or notify the priest or deacon) if they are unable to attend. It makes sense to put a more experienced sacristan with a less experienced one, as that is truly the best way to learn! We’ve done different things over the years, from assigning a girl to the same Sunday each month, to allowing parents to sign up their kids themselves via a website like SignUp Genius. Do whatever works best for your parish.

5. Make sure your parish community knows that sacristans are available to participate in various tasks outside of their Sunday duties! Handing out candles for Easter Vigil and processing with flowers in the annual neighborhood Corpus Christi procession are both things our sacristans have enjoyed doing over the years.

6. Lastly, take the time to let the girls know how much you appreciate the work that they do. Teach them that they are serving Jesus and helping their priest. Encourage them that even the small and seemingly unseen things of this world can have a large spiritual impact. This will not only hopefully touch their hearts, but may also prepare them for a life of service and love, lived for Christ and His Church.