‘Take and Read’: Parish Libraries Help Form the Mind in Faith

Even in an era of digital media, hard-copy books play an important role in intellectual formation at the parish level.

Catholic books, old and new, are featured in parish libraries across the country.
Catholic books, old and new, are featured in parish libraries across the country. (photo: Shutterstock)

Father Joseph Johnson puts a lot of care and preparation into his preaching, and his homilies tend to run long. But the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, will be the first to tell you that Catholics need more intellectual formation than a Sunday homily alone can provide.

“God gave us a mind, and he wants that mind to be formed,” Father Johnson said. “The Scripture itself says, ‘Have the mind of Christ Jesus.’ Well, then we need to know more. I need to be engaging my mind.”

One way to help this mental engagement: parish libraries. 

These initiatives offer parishioners ample opportunity for intellectual formation, prompting a greater ability to engage the heart in the work of Christ, Father Johnson explained. In his estimation, parish libraries are a necessary extension of the teaching mission of the Church. 


Browsing the Stacks

At Holy Family, the parish library has been prioritized as a vital complement to its adult-formation programs. When the parish was building a recent addition, it set aside one of its  rooms as a space for a library, which can also accommodate conference meetings as needed. 

Parishioners were invited to contribute books, and they formed a massive collection, calling the space “Aquinas Library.” The parish uses a cataloging software that allows parishioners to view whether a book is available, but simply browsing the parish library may also stimulate curiosity.

Aquinas Library Holy Family Parish Minnesota
In St. Louis Park, Minnesota, Holy Family Catholic Church’s Aquinas Library doubles as a meeting room. | Courtesy photo

“It just gives the Holy Spirit a little wiggle room to nudge you towards some other things that might be great intellectual formation for you,” said Father Johnson.

This impact of hard-copy books indicates that even at a time when digital resources are more widely available than ever, there still may be an advantage to incarnate words.

Marianist Brother Andrew Kosmowski, the vice president/president-elect of the Catholic Library Association and a librarian at the North American Center for Marianist Studies in Beavercreek, Ohio, told the Register that there tends to be at least a few parish libraries per diocese. 

Not every parish will have the materials, personnel, space or interest, he noted. Yet parish libraries can meet a need that some local public libraries and Catholic university libraries generally can’t: providing spiritual-enrichment resources to parishioners who may not have much of a budget for books.


Taking Donations

In order to build a collection on a limited budget, parish libraries tend to rely heavily on donations from the local community or even discounted prices from publishers. For instance, EWTN Religious Catalogue, Ignatius Press and the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology offer discounts on books ordered by parishes, while publishers like Paraclete Press and Pauline Books and Media offer curated “starter packs” for parishes looking to assemble their own libraries.

Kris Rooney, who runs pastoral care and adult faith formation at St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Schenectady, New York, said most of the items in the parish library were donated. Some donors have told her they’re grateful they have a place to bring books that they inherited from family. 

St. Kateri Library in New York
St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Schenectady, New York, boosts its library’s popularity by offering a parish book club. | Courtesy photo

Other ways to obtain library resources include asking the church’s pastor if he has books he has grown weary of moving from parish to parish. Parishes can also create a wish list of books that people can sponsor the purchase of, Father Johnson suggested.

With all sorts of books coming in, a parish needs to make sure it has a system in place for organizing, cataloging and approving resources that adhere to Church teaching. Usually this involves establishing some kind of parish library committee to take responsibility for the project.

Brother Andrew recommends that a parish find an individual who can determine whether books meet physical standards, organize the collection and maintain orderliness. It’s also important parishes limit what they spend on resources they allow parishioners to check out.

“This is not to say that Catholic readers are thieves,” he explained, with a laugh. “But it is to say that sometimes the book can fall in the bathtub, and it’s so damaged you can’t put it back on the shelf. The DVD might get eaten by the DVD player.”

At the same time, some donated materials may not be in good condition, and the parish may not have the resources to repair books that are falling apart. 


Curating a Collection

Parishes need to monitor not only the physical quality of the books donated to the parish library. They also need to be intentional about the content of the books they want to make available to their parishioners. 

Brother Andrew believes parish staff will know their members’ needs better, so he suggests parishes offer a mix of spiritual reading and theology books, or books that are “catechetical with a spiritual vein.”

When Holy Cross started its parish library, the parish formed a dedicated committee to review and sort the books to weed out books that are inconsistent with Church teaching and don’t support the formation of Catholic disciples.

Sometimes parishioners help with that. For example, a parishioner recently approached Father Johnson with a concern about a passage about a book on Church history, and the priest determined that the book should be removed from the library. Nobody on the library committee had read that book, so it snuck by since it looked like an appropriate book, he explained.

If the parish wants to include books that don’t necessarily support Catholic teaching, Father Johnson suggested the parish puts those books into a separate part of the library.

Holy Family’s collection includes nearly 30 different book categories, including sections for philosophy and theology, but also more practical ones like devotionals and apologetics, and even sections devoted to discernment and coping with grief.

Rooney says that many of the books at St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s parish library are about saints. They also have books from popular authors and parishioners who are authors. Their newest section is based on diversity and racial justice, including a book on the life of Servant of God Thea Bowman, one of six African Americans being considered for sainthood, as well as an illustrated collection of Marian madonnas of color.

Since she wishes the library would be more popular, Rooney’s considering drawing more attention to the library by highlighting some books in a more prominent place in the church. The parish’s book group is another opportunity for parishioners to establish social connection and stay engaged in the parish and faith life. They read and discuss the faith aspects of about five books a year, which may or not be overtly religious.


Starting Small

Small parishes can have libraries, too, though they might look a little different.

Despite only having 30 enrolled parish families, St. Anthony’s parish in Upton, Wyoming, has had a bookcase in its multipurpose room for the past 15 years, parishioner Pam Locke told the Register. Locke uses the books to teach catechesis, as well as confirmation preparation and adult formation, but they’re also available for parishioners to borrow or exchange.

St. Anthony Library Wyoming
Pam Locke maintains the one-shelf parish library at St. Anthony’s in Upton, Wyoming; the parish is comprised of only 30 registered families. | Mary Stroka

The tiny library got started when a few parishioners brought in books that they had read and were ready to share with the community. Like Rooney, Locke wishes the library would be more popular. 

Her advice for parishes on the small end of the spectrum is to talk with the parish priest, put an announcement in the church bulletin and see if parishioners are willing to donate books or money for books. Parishes can ask their financial officer, accountant or business manager to make it possible for those donations to be tax-deductible, and memorial or bereavement gifts of money for books might also be possible.

The parish library at St. Joseph parish in St. Charles, Missouri, began with one parishioner, Steve Bennett, according to a church newsletter article. Bennett handed out pamphlets and faith-enriching materials after Mass every week and built bookshelves to house VHS tapes, as he wanted the parish to truly evangelize. 

After his death, a few parish leaders were inspired to expand on Bennett’s vision of making Catholic media and literature more accessible. Brian Kruse and Luke Lalumandier constructed bookshelves for the parish library for their Eagle Scout projects. More than 300 items were checked out in the first month of the library’s reopening in 2015, and the library now has more than 1,200 media materials.


Worth the Effort

Parishes do have access to outside help, as well, Brother Andrew said. Parishes that are seeking books from authors they may not have heard of may wish to review recipients of Catholic literary awards, such as those posted on the Catholic Library Association’s website, to get some ideas. The Register also highlights “Book Picks.” And EWTN Religious Catalogue boasts an abundance of books.

Parish library managers can become members of the Catholic Library Association and have access to a parish library listserv. The association has chapters in some parts of the U.S. and is hosting a virtual conference Nov. 3-4. They might sometimes benefit from resources that are available to school librarians, though school libraries and parish libraries have distinct audiences.

Starting a parish library requires dedication and effort. But as Father Johnson sees it, if even just one parishioner takes a book and it helps him or her become a better disciple, the effort is worthwhile. After all, as St. Augustine writes in Confessions, overhearing tolle lege, or “take up and read,” helped change his life forever.

Mary Stroka is an award winning journalist with experience writing for statewide news media, nonprofits, and government bodies. A wife and mother of two, she currently lives in Gillette, Wyoming, where she reports on local news. Her smaller adventures have included studying foreign languages, like Italian and Spanish.


Resources for Building a Parish Library

EWTN Religious Catalogue offers an abundance of books and DVD resources, among other offerings: Parishes may receive a 20% discount on any item they are wanting to purchase. If they are interested in any of the EWTN Home Video items, the discount is 55%.

Franciscan Media: Parishes that are eager to get started might like to contact Franciscan Media Manager of Operations Melody Baron at [email protected]. Franciscan Media is closing its physical office, and staff are working from home, so they have books that they would be willing to donate. Parishes would be responsible for shipping costs, and they would not be able to pick the titles. The books must be out of the office by Dec. 1.

Pauline Books & Media: Sister Margaret Timothy Sato of the Daughters of St. Paul said Pauline Books & Media has resources for all ages that would be appropriate for a parish library, offers a parish book rack discount, and would love to assist parishes setting up their own libraries. Please contact them at (800) 876-4463. 

Ignatius Press: Manager of Marketing Eva Muntean said Ignatius Press offers parish discounts but does not have a particular program in place for starting a parish library.

Ave Maria Press Ministry Resources and Special Initiatives Manager Erin Pierce said parishes can contact her at [email protected] to discuss their unique parish needs. 

Paraclete Press: Publicist/Director of Marketing Rachel McKendree said Paraclete Press offers a 30% discount to parishes for their libraries, and representatives will help parishes create a “starter package” that meets their needs. Paraclete has served parish and school libraries of all denominations for years, she said.

St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology: Stacy Beigel, in customer service at St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, said parishes that create an account with them can receive 15% to 50% off Emmaus Road Publishing titles when they make purchases on their parish account. Parishes can send an email to [email protected] if they would like to create an account. All discounted purchases must be placed by phone or email.