When Fr. Josh Johnson arrived as pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church over a year ago, he slept in a room above the choir loft.
The church and rectory had been ravaged by a flood a couple years prior that had destroyed or damaged 95 percent of the small town of St. Amant, Louisiana. The pastor of Holy Rosary had also left due to health reasons, leaving the wrecked parish without a pastor.
Knowing he was coming into a difficult situation, Johnson called in the big guns: he asked communities of cloistered nuns to surround his new parish in prayer.
“I immediately reached out to the cloistered convents and was like: ‘Hey y'all, here's the deal. I'm going to this parish that's just been devastated, can y'all please adopt this parish as spiritual mothers and intercede for these people?’” Johnson told CNA.
Then he bumped up the amount of time that the sacraments would be available to his parishioners. He rearranged the schedule so that his staff could start their day with Mass and adoration.
Fast-forward to today - the prayers of those nuns, and of the people of the parish of Holy Rosary, have come to fruition in the booming and thriving Full of Grace Cafe, a one-stop-shop community center run out of the renovated rectory.
The full name of the rectory-turned-community-center is: Full of Grace Cafe: Quenching God’s Thirst for Charity & Justice.
And the name fits, because it’s hard to come up with a service that Full of Grace Cafe doesn’t offer.
It’s a coffee shop, but it’s also a food pantry and a soup kitchen and a diaper drive and a laundromat. There are volunteer Human Resources specialists, psychological counselors, a hair stylist, a Creighton FertilityCare specialist and an ultrasound machine. There’s a room for small groups and bible studies. There’s a fireplace and a pool table and a courtyard for outdoor movie nights and socials after Mass.
That wasn’t the original vision. At first, Johnson had the simple idea to move the existing food pantry to a more prominent location, and to maybe one day open a coffee shop.
“I had a very small vision at first, just put the food pantry up front, that way when people come to our campus, you see a beautiful church, and then you see a space for service of the poor,” he said.
“And then from that, different parishioners just began to share their dreams.” All of the services are offered pro bono by parishioners who wanted to share their gifts with the community, Johnson said.
“One lady came to me and said I have the gift of doing hair, and then she said my friends do too, and we would love to come and do hair for free there. And so I said ok, cool, it can be a food pantry and a salon.”
As word got out about the cafe, the offers of help just kept coming.
“And then someone said why don't we make it a soup kitchen too? I love to cook. These people out here can cook well! So I was like ok, we can do that. Then another woman who works with me, she's a Creighton fertility care specialist, and she was like, I can walk with couples and do Creighton FertilityCare for people who are infertile or who have endometriosis or cysts on their ovaries or who want to do Natural Family Planning.”
Johnson also recruited the help of local branches of Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, and other non-profits in the area to bolster the services and to provide legal help and counseling.
He said he hopes to bring Jesus to people in a way that is non-threatening, in a way that informs, but doesn’t force anything. He said he wants people to feel heard, and for them to know that the cafe is a place where people can come and mutually share their gifts and their lives.
“The goal is really to have a place where the body of Christ can come together to give and receive,” he said.
“I'm going there to receive too, I'm certainly going to give in there, but I'm also receiving. Like when I do a bible study with our parishioners, God speaks to me through their wisdom and through their love for the Lord. And whenever I'm with the poor I'm receiving as much as I'm giving, so its a place of mutuality, where I can give to you and I can receive your gift and we can accompany each other toward heaven.”
Johnson is not foreign to mission work. Before he became a priest, he spent time serving with Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, in Calcutta, India. He’s served the poor with a religious order in Jamaica, and several years ago he was on mission at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the cafe is just a means, Johnson said, not an end. The goal is to point people to Jesus, and ultimately, to make saints.
“On the wall for (Mother Teresa’s) home for the dying and the destitute, there's a quote on the wall that Mother Teresa said to God,” Johnson said. “She said: I will give Holy Mother Church saints. And I remember when I saw that quote it pierced my heart, so it’s on my ordination card...and this is my way of drawing people to the sacraments.”
Johnson himself left the Church when he was young. What brought him back, he said, was the Eucharist.
“The Eucharist is what brought me back to Jesus and so I believe if I could just get people to come to our campus, then I have the opportunity to point them to Jesus and the Eucharist because the Eucharist is where transformation happens,” he said.
“The Eucharist is going to do everything else, I've seen Jesus work miracles, it’s so cool,” he said.
He’s invited Protestants to come to Eucharistic adoration at his parish, and “I've just seen legit transformations... people who don't even know what's going on have these hardcore transformations because Jesus is alive, and I think we just need to believe that Jesus is God and that he can do what he says he does.”
Johnson has endless stories of all kinds of providential encounters that have happened through the Full of Grace Cafe. There was Micky, a homeless man who wanted community and is now connected to a bible study. There was a distressed young man in the parking lot who needed a job - and was able to take a roofing job that another man had told Johnson about the day before.
Something else Johnson wanted to emphasize was the evangelizing aspect of the Full of Grace Cafe. He didn’t just want to offer food or laundry services to people in need without also trying to tell them about Jesus, he said.
“One thing I noticed in seminary, helping out at Catholic apostolates, when they did work for the poor and with the poor, they wouldn't evangelize well,” he said. “They would give people food, like handouts and stuff, but they wouldn't try to tell people about the story of salvation, and share Jesus with people and really proclaim the faith.”
That’s why in every room of Full of Grace Cafe, there are scripture verses on the wall and pictures of saints. “And they're really diverse saints, because I want everyone who comes to see a saint who looks like them,” he said, from Our Lady of Kibeho to Our Lady of Guadalupe to Fr. Augustus Tolton, St. Jose Sanchez, St. Dymphna, Saints Peter and Paul and more.
“So whether you're white, black, Asian or Hispanic, you're going to see someone who looks like you who's a saint, so you're going to be inspired. You're going to see scriptures on the wall. You're going to meet people who aren't just going to give you a hand-out, but who are going to ask you your story and ask if they can pray with you. I want it to be a place where people would legit encounter Jesus.”
He’s also hoping that he will find an order of religious sisters who will fill the convent in the back of the cafe and help out at the parish.
“I want nuns!” he said. So far he’s had a few different orders of religious sisters come and visit to see if the parish would fit them.
“I want nuns who love Jesus and who love the poor and who love the Blessed Sacrament,” he said.
Johnson said one of the most rewarding things about Full of Grace Cafe has been seeing how willing his parishioners are to pitch in and share their gifts with the community.
“They're like my kids,” he said of his parishioners. “It’s like wow, I'm younger than them because I’m only 31, but I'm like oh man, look at my kids, they're happy about this, they're excited about doing ministry.”
“I recognize I am a limited member of the Body of Christ,” he added. “I'm a necessary member for sure, but I'm very limited, my role is limited, so if I can just build up my parishioners to say yes to being the particular member of the body of Christ that they're called to be, I've done my job well because then we're gonna run, we're gonna thrive.”
The projects at Holy Rosary parish and Full of Grace Cafe have only just begun.
Taking another cue from Mother Teresa, the next step for Johnson is, unsurprisingly, building an adoration chapel and setting up perpetual adoration.
“I've been telling people ok, now, we have to set up perpetual adoration because I don't want any of us to become a bunch of heretics out here thinking we're gonna work our way to heaven,” he said. “We've got to focus on the Eucharist and we're going to see so much more supernatural fruit.”
He said that when Mother Teresa’s sisters prioritized time in prayer in front of the Eucharist, they saw their order and apostolates flourish in new ways.
“We're going to follow the model of saints,” he said. “We're going to next focus on getting an adoration chapel built so that we can have really hardcore time of just Jesus and I, and adore the Lord and watch him work! Watch the Lord do his thing, and he will, he will. It’s so exciting.”