Cleveland’s ‘Avilas’ Quietly Nurture Vocations

Vocations Profile

Members of the Avilas pray a Holy Hour in the chapel of St. Mary Seminary in the Diocese of Cleveland.
Members of the Avilas pray a Holy Hour in the chapel of St. Mary Seminary in the Diocese of Cleveland. (photo: Photo by Jerri Donohue)

Although she was raising six children and juggling multiple responsibilities, Rosemary Cochran faithfully prayed a weekly Holy Hour for vocations and for ordained priests and vowed religious of the Diocese of Cleveland.

Cochran has honored this commitment since joining the “Avilas” — a prayer group exclusively for praying for vocations to the priesthood and religious life and for the perseverance of priests and sisters — almost 40 years ago.

The organization takes its name from St. Teresa of Avila, and its motto became her exhortation: “There is but one road that leads to God, and that is prayer. If anyone tells you another, you are being deceived.”

Now in her 90s, Cochran stays with the group because of their concern for priests and sisters.

“So often you get your support from family,” Cochran said. “But it means a lot to know that others are backing you at the same time.”

Only God understands the full impact that Cochran and her fellow Avilas have made on vocations in Cleveland — but the country’s 21st-largest diocese has ordained men to the priesthood every year since the Avilas were established in 1972.

Last month, eight men received holy orders. At least seven more will enter the seminary this fall.

The diocese acknowledges the Avilas’ efforts.

“These people take a personal interest, a maternal or paternal interest,” said Father Michael McCandless, director of the Diocesan Vocation Office.

Bishop Anthony Pilla designed the Avilas logo during his tenure. When Father McCandless celebrated Mass to commemorate the Avilas’ 40th anniversary in 2012, retired Bishop Pilla and former vocation directors joined him. The Vocation Office further showed its appreciation by presenting the organization with an icon of their patroness.


Responding to a Need

The Avilas hold an annual “Day of Recollection,” and they gather at the seminary five times a year for a Holy Hour, Mass (with seminarians when classes are in session) and a luncheon meeting with a speaker.

The 82 active Avilas pay yearly dues of $60 to cover the cost of luncheons, a bimonthly newsletter and cards for priests and religious who are transferred or who celebrate important anniversaries.

Each member prays a weekly Holy Hour, using a handbook the organization designed for this purpose. The Avilas also produced a Stations of the Cross booklet, with prayers tailored to priesthood and religious life. Typical of the cooperation between vocation support groups, the Knights of Columbus assumed printing costs.

Avila prayer groups exist in 45 of the diocese’s 186 parishes. Father McCandless wants to add more, and so Beverly Krizay contacts parishes without vocation Holy Hours to encourage their participation. Her own parish, St. Francis de Sales in Akron, has held them since 1996. Six parishioners are currently studying for the priesthood, and another recently celebrated his first Mass.

“I’ve known him since he was a young boy,” Krizay said. “And now he’s [been] ordained!”

For the 17th year, Barbara Kovacic leads the Holy Hour at St. Justin Martyr parish in Eastlake. It always includes the Rosary, petitions for the Pope’s intention and prayers from the Avilas handbook. Although most who attend are not Avila members, they remember communities of religious men and women designated by the Avilas for that month.

In June, they pray for several Franciscan communities and the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales.

Avilas follow a calendar distributed by “Parents of Priests” of the Diocese of Cleveland that requests prayers for a specific priest or seminarian each day of the month. Without wavering from their purpose, the Avilas respond to changes in society and the Church.

Initially a women-only organization, they now welcome men as members. St. John Paul II’s Mysteries of Light and prayers for permanent deacons appear in their updated handbook. And in 1984 the Avilas created “Prayer Moms” to personalize spiritual and moral support for diocesan priests.


Prayer Mom and Dads

Barb Kahoun was manning a table at a diocesan event when a priest asked the longtime Avila for his nametag. Kahoun’s heart leapt. She had never met the priest or even seen a photo of him, but she had prayed for him every day for years. Kahoun is the priest’s anonymous “Prayer Mom.”

Upon his ordination, each diocesan priest receives a “Prayer Mom” or “Prayer Dad,” an Avila who pledges to pray for him for the rest of his life. The unidentified Avila serves as a sort of year-round spiritual “secret Santa,” sending encouraging cards or notes, especially for Christmas, birthdays and ordination anniversaries.

“Your goal is to let that person know you are keeping him in prayer,” said Mary Ann Trask, outgoing president of the Avilas.

Trask explained that Prayer Moms and Dads list the Vocation Office as their return address, and priests reply to it. A priest learns the identity of his Prayer Mom or Dad only upon that person’s death.

Many concelebrate the funeral Mass, sometimes driving great distances to do so.

When a priest’s Prayer Mom or Dad dies or becomes too ill to continue, another Avila adopts him.

Kahoun, for example, volunteered for her prayer son when his original Prayer Mom died.

“From the time of his ordination until his death, a priest has a Prayer Mom or Dad,” Trask said.

“The cards and letters come at the right time,” said Father McCandless, who hears from his Prayer Mom every two or three months.

“We know that somebody is sacrificing their time and intention for us every day.”

Jerri Donohue writes from Brecksville, Ohio.

While researching this story, she was inspired to join the Avilas.

For more information on the group, 

email Virginia Kovacina at [email protected].



Other Vocational Support in Cleveland

Cleveland receives substantial financial and moral support for vocations from local branches of national organizations: the Knights of Columbus, the Serrans and the Holy Name Society. “The vocational support groups in this diocese are so interconnected and together they make a fantastic support,” said Cleveland’s vocation director, Father Michael McCandless.

Homegrown groups and locally initiated events also assist those discerning for the priesthood or religious life:

Parents of Priests (POP) holds an annual raffle to help with seminarians’ medical expenses, car repairs and other needs. POP also established a fund to help men nearing ordination purchase books essential to their ministry. Members of the other vocation groups regularly contribute to it.

All of these organizations work with the Vocation Office to plan and finance the annual Bishop’s Seminary Brunch, during which each seminarian is introduced to the joyful assembly. “If you have a thousand people in the room who are very happy and applauding because of your presence in the seminary, you remember that on the tough days,” Father McCandless said. Donations collected at the brunch cover emergency expenses of individual seminarians.

Each year Tolle Lege (“Take Up and Read”) Summer Institute immerses 40 bright high-school seniors in philosophy, theology and the cultural riches of our faith. Father Damian Ference, the program director, reports that 11 young men who attended the summer camp during its first five years later entered the seminary; of these, nine remain. Two young women entered the convent; one is still pursuing religious life.

Jerri Donohue