Echo apprentices from Notre Dame assigned to parishes south of Houston

September 18, 2012

PEARLAND – On a quiet street here, in the middle of the block, two single young men and two single young women are settling into the freshly remodeled house they’ll call “home” for the next two years.

And what will the neighbors think? 

If they’re neighborly, they’ll knock on the door and meet Matt, Patrick, Sylvia and Francesca: the four newly installed apprentices from the University of Notre Dame’s catechetical-leadership program, Echo. The program forms young Church leaders to make strides in evangelization, catechesis and “handing on” of the faith.

As Echo apprentices, Matt Kiernan, Patrick Higgins, Sylvia Artiles and Francesca Garcia have each been assigned to a parish south of Houston to learn under the mentorship of each parish’s catechetical director. The apprentices will teach, evangelize, lead and become part of the parish community — all in a mere 25 months, with summers spent in class on the campus of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. When they complete the program in 2014, Notre Dame will bestow upon them master’s degrees in theology.

Notre Dame’s Echo Faith Formation Leadership Program has placed about 100 graduate students in a total of 11 partner dioceses since its inception in 2004.
The apprentices living in Pearland are part of the university’s ninth class (Echo 9). The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston is the only diocese currently hosting two classes. Four Echo 8 apprentices who reside in Spring have started their second year serving parishes north of Houston. Earlier this summer, four Echo 7 apprentices were graduated at the University of Notre Dame, where Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza celebrated the closing Mass for the Echo program. At that time, the Echo 9 class met their new Houston-area mentors.

After a careful vetting process that involves each diocese and catechetical leaders at participating parishes, Notre Dame places only 12 apprentices each year. Besides their two-year practicum and summer semesters on campus, they are required to take an online course in ministry.

To participate, parishes must have a qualified proactive catechetical leader who is capable of mentoring, according to Anne Comeaux, the Archdiocese’s recently retired director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis and the outgoing mentor and advocate for the Echo program.

Besides having their pastors’ support, parishes must also be able to afford to pay apprentices a small stipend for their personal expenses. Notre Dame pays for their schooling; the Archdiocese pays housing expenses and health care.

Thanks to the generosity of local Catholics, four of the six Echo classes that have been hosted in the Houston area have been able to live rent-free in residences throughout their apprenticeships – including the Echo houses in Pearland and Spring.

“I shouldn’t be, but I’m always amazed at the generosity of people,” Comeaux said.

Comeaux, who lives in Pearland, said her neighbors saw a notice in a church bulletin about helping the new apprentices find housing. As it turned out, her neighbors were buying a house as an investment property. The new owners replaced floors, appliances, window coverings and painted walls throughout the house. Other parishioners provided furniture and other home furnishings. The apprentices moved in the last week of August.

“It’s just been a very humbling experience for me to be in charge of this program and to meet all the wonderful people who’ve become involved in it,” Comeaux said.
Echo 9 is the sixth class hosted by the Archdiocese since 2005. The current apprentices include:
• Kiernan, from Coronado, Calif., who is apprenticing at St. Luke the Evangelist Church in the Sagemont area.
• Higgins, from Portland, Ore., who is apprenticing at St. Helen Catholic Church in Pearland.
• Garcia from Lytle, Texas, who is apprenticing at St. Bernadette in Clear Lake.
• Artiles, born in Kansas but raised in Dallas, who is apprenticing at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Angleton. 
They are set to complete the program in 2014.

Meet the class

Matt Kiernan graduated Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies. For the past year he worked at the Dynamic Catholic Institute in Cincinnati — a non-profit organization re-engaging Catholics with their faith. 
“Echo provides an incredible opportunity for formation of the whole person,” Kiernan said. “I feel my faith was a gift passed along to me and it has made a huge impact on my life, recognizing the true joy and peace that comes from a relationship with God. Just as that gift was given to me, I hope to share that with others.”

Patrick Higgins graduated in 2011 from the University of Oregon. “I wanted to go to grad school and was hoping for a more specifically Catholic education,” Higgins said. 
That’s when he discovered the Echo program. “I’ve known for a long time that I want to work professionally in ministry,” Higgins said. “Of course, there are countless ways to serve God. But I would like that service to be the priority in my life and hopefully working in a professional, ministerial setting will make that easier.”

Francesca Garcia is a recent graduate of St. Mary’s University, where she majored in English literature. A certified teacher, she followed a call to ministry instead. She’s serving her apprenticeship at St. Bernadette in Clear Lake. 
Garcia’s home parish is so small, it shares a pastor with two other parishes. While her goal had been to teach English in a Catholic school, she’s now thinking about what she can do for poor Hispanic communities, notably, her own. “A lot of families are leaving because the traditions aren’t the same,” she said, and added that these parishes are losing young adults to communities with more economic opportunities. 
These poor parishes are “losing a lot of the luster they had – that community feel, where everybody knew each other,” she said. “Now they’re just going to Mass, and doing their own thing, and leaving the parishes. I want to try to bring the sense of community back to these parishes.”

Sylvia Artiles graduated from the University of Dallas in 2008. From there, she joined a ministry in Washington, D.C., that served single mothers and at-risk children. She transferred within the ministry to Kansas City, where she worked with Central American refugees. She later joined the Beaumont diocese as campus minister for Lamar University. 
“I feel like I’ve had experience in ministry and campus ministry — and I’ve done a lot of volunteer work, but you’re given a project and you’re integrated with all the other departments,” Artiles said. “I feel that being involved in a parish in this particular program is giving us the opportunity to see how the parish is as a whole. …Now you see all the dynamics of the families, the dynamics of the work, what the resources that we’re given. It’s just a much bigger picture. It’s pretty amazing and a little intimidating to jump right in. It’s only two years. And I want to absorb as much as I can.”
Did you know?

Echo is a University of Notre Dame program which is committed to Evangelization, Catechesis and “Handing On” the faith. However, Echo is less about an acronym and more about echoing the word of Christ. “Catechesis” takes its root from a Greek word meaning “to echo” or “to resound.” The Echo program “listens to the needs of the Church, embraces the mission to hand on the faith, and engages with vigor the challenges of a complex age in which faith continues to seek understanding,” according to its website. At Notre Dame, Echo is administered by the Institute for Church Life.