Father Pat's Online Fishing Expedition

PLOVER, Wis.—It's biblical bytes, quick-click catechism and person-to-person e-pistles.

When Father Pat Umberger isn’t ministering to his own Plover, Wis., parish, he's connecting daily through computers to countless souls worldwide.

More than 5,000 have signed up to get his e-mailed daily prayer, Scripture reading and meditation. Some are among his 1,780 parishioner families in Plover; others are just about everywhere else.

What's more, the inspirational e-mail apostolate is merely an outgrowth of the priest's award-winning St. Bronislava Parish Web site (www.StBrons.com). Started in 1996 as a modest method of relaying basic parish information, the site now boasts more than 150 pages of welcoming Catholic faith and facts as well as links to other resources, including his own “Father Pat's Place” (www.FrPat.com).

The site's most recent honor is the CatholiCity Frequent Flyer Award; it also has been cited as a USA Today Hot Site, Web Surfer's Choice Home Page of the Year and given the Golden Grail Award and Catholic Digest's Heaven's Choice Award, among others.

“It's not the glory of the awards, but the award draws more people to our site,” says Father Pat, as he's known on the Web. He's particularly pleased about the latest honor. “If the CatholiCity stamp of approval is there, it tells people they can trust this … that there's nothing not orthodox about our site.”

John S. Ettinger, Webmaster at CatholiCity (pronounced “Catholic City”; www.CatholiCity.com), said, “The award is given to the sites that we feel have enough quality and fidelity to the Church and [general] usefulness that we include them as links in our CatholiCity Airport,” St. Bronislava's is among the handful of parish sites included in the approximately 600 CatholiCity index links.

He Does It Himself

Father Pat, a Mark Twain fan who designs and maintains “every keystroke” of the site himself, offers his inspiration by e-mail and pages on issues ranging from cancer or grief support to resentments, cremation, annulments, Pope John Paul II, vocations, and an ever-changing schedule of holiday, holy day and special theme offerings as well.

Father Pat said many of his design touches aim mainly at netting people into the site. “I often think of [the site] as having a fish hook in the water 24 hours a day,” he said. “The Internet is a pretty non-threatening way to break down barriers and boundaries and reach across them …. There are a lot of people out there, many of them with time to spend and no good goal in mind. Why not give them one?”

And so it is that the 49-year-old pastor/Webmaster applies color and graphics liberally — Oliver Hardy currently is whacked in the face with a snowball in one stamp-sized image — and practically every page offers an automatic sign-up opportunity for the morning prayer package.

“Once you get people signed up for morning prayer, it's amazing what it does to their life,” he said. “It's just a way to give God a little inroad into their lives, a constant reminder every day,” he said.

Some subjects are treated with carefully crafted simplicity and practicality. The Reconciliation Page, for instance, even offers nervous Nellies a “Credit Card to Heaven” to carry into confession so they will know exactly what to expect and say.

“We did that in Spanish now, too,” Father Pat boasted.

For all its warmth, the site — which has seen more than 188,000 visitors to date — presents the Church's magisterial teachings factually and undiluted. Visitors are always urged to return to the sacraments without further delay.

Bishop Raymond Burke of the Diocese of La Crosse, which encompasses Plover, is among those who clicked in to a morning prayer subscription and liked what he saw. He said many people have told him their mornings kick off with Father Pat's e-mailed prayer:

“I admire very much Father Pat's using the Internet to carry out, really, an apostolate of evangelization. He's reaching out to many people — people who are experiencing some crisis in their lives, people who are searching for their faith, also devout Catholics who are looking for knowledge of their faith or looking for some devotional help.”

That Personal Touch

The bishop also credited Father Pat with encouraging his visitors to seek out “a personal encounter with a priest,” sometimes even to the point of making a phone call from his Plover rectory to smooth the way.

Father Pat gets 150 to 200 e-mailed messages daily and responds to many of them personally in the four hours he's at the keyboard.

“Sometimes their intention is to see somebody about an annulment or a vocation or something and I'll say, ‘Let me know if you want me to call for you.’ Sometimes they take you up on that. That's a good thing.”

The personal touch also reaches into such pages as the Cancer Support link for Father Pat, who is coping with a rare strain of cancer himself. Treatments for a tumor in his right eye appear to be successful, but he knows well the stresses cancer patients and their families face.

One author of Internet guides, Brother John Raymond of the Monks of Adoration in Petersham, Mass., said the personal touch at the St. Bronislava's site is evident at first glance, which he called “very visually appealing”

At the same time, however, the author of Catholics on the Internet 2000-2001 (Prima Publishing) said he found navigating among the pages cumbersome, especially because visitors can’t click from page to page without returning to the home page.

Father Pat spoke about his cyber-ministry last year at the annual meeting of the National Catholic Association for Communicators and Pastoral Congress of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Jesus and his disciples used any means they could to spread the message

… preaching, traveling, writing, etc.,” he explained.

And now, he uses apostles of the Internet.

Roberta Tuttle writes from North Haven, Connecticut.