A parish thirsting for catechesis

In 1950, Harriet Herdering and her husband became members of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Van Nuys. In the late 1980s, Harriet opened the parish’s Baptistry Bookstore (open for business every Sunday between Masses), and also volunteers with the Van Nuys Public Library.

Clearly, Harriet has a commitment to learning, which is a hallmark of this venerable mid-Valley parish that offers an array of opportunities through its ministries to help its people of all ages grow in their faith.

The Rogationist priests, who have administered the multicultural parish since 2001, emphasize catechesis, and it shows in the large number of parishioners involved at St. Elizabeth. Movimiento Familiar (Catholic Family Movement) and Family Catechesis, celebrations for Filipino and Hispanic Catholics that include everyone, have created a cohesive family spirit in the parish. Education through the RCIA, family catechesis and St. Elizabeth School affect the whole parish, says Rogationist Father John Bruno, pastor.  

An example of the melding of catechesis for young and old is the First Communion program for 400 families, led by 46 teachers under the direction of Daughter of Divine Zeal Sister Iris Flores. Parents (some receiving sacramental preparation themselves) are catechized along with their children, an important part of the evangelization process.

“The parents want to know more and receive themselves,” Sister Flores explains. “It is most often their first time for any sort of catechesis.”

Born in Chile, Sister Flores  --- a self-described “Chilena with a taste of Mexico --- una Chilena con el sabor de Mexico” --- loves the people she serves. “I feel very comfortable and happy because I can share my faith and share Christ as I know him with the people,” she says. “I give them the opportunity to know Jesus personally, to find Jesus in their homes, and it makes everything worth it in time and work.” 

Her program also includes an outreach component in which volunteers collect food and toys for needy children at Christmas. Outreach is essential at St. Elizabeth, where 40 percent of the parish families are unable to find more permanent housing; most live in small apartments.

“That is one of the parish’s most difficult challenges, the high rate of poverty in the Van Nuys area,” notes Father Bruno. “But our parishioners are as generous as they can be, especially with their time.”

“The parish is a very tight community,” says Lucy Martin, principal of St. Elizabeth School. “They do their best. It is a poor parish and the Rogationists do a lot to help the people in the area. Father John as pastor is extremely supportive of our school and he appreciates all that we do.”

The feeling is mutual. On a recent Sunday, as Harriet Herdering was training a school parent in the bookstore, 92-year-old Irene Rivetti — a parishioner since she was a small child—came in to buy cards. 

“The priests have been always been nice people,” said Rivetti, adding with a smile, “And I’ve been through a lot of them, too.”

 Herdering, whose husband died some years ago, has balanced the bookstore with responsibilities as a wife and mother (her children all were baptized there and attended the parish school) while also serving as a lector and Eucharistic minister. “This parish has been like a second family to me,” she says. 

Principal Martin, who came to St. Elizabeth School after working in the corporate world for 30 years, says her husband is always asking her, “When are you going to retire?” Her response: “I am doing something that I believe the Lord put me here to do. I love the job. I love the school and these beautiful children. I come home at night and I feel that if I touch the life of even just one child, I have done enough.”

“Catholic education of these children is a ministry. The parent is the primary educator, but we are not here to teach them just math and science. We are here for the whole child. We teach them life skills.” 

For Christmas, the school helped the parish Service Center create gift baskets (turkeys, boxes of food, bicycles, games, clothing and presents) for 54 families. “Someone once said, ‘You can’t squeeze any more blood out of this turnip,’” notes Martin, “but our people continue giving and giving.” 

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