The princess, the pea and the mission ad gentes

St. Frances Cabrini Parish has seen startling success with their evangelization plan. Instead of bingo or balloon festivals, they’re investing in the arts.

The Arts at Cabrini program started in 1999, when the Littleton parish did a production of “Godspell” as a benefit for Columbine High School. The benefits all went to help rebuild the library after the massacre. The production proved to be successful as a benefit, and the program continued. They have put on 12 productions in 16 years, as well as instrumental and choral concerts.

Dan Wyatt serves on the advisory board of Arts at Cabrini. He said that although they continue to donate the proceeds from each show, the program has proven to have an evangelical impact.

“It’s an outreach in exposing people to Catholic culture,” Wyatt said. “We see this as an evangelistic outreach to the wider community, both in terms of bringing in professionals, and, of course, marketing the shows to a wider community, so that people get a sense that within Catholic culture, we have a dedication to the arts.”

Wyatt said that their commitment to doing quality shows has helped them earn a good reputation both in the local community, and also within the theater world.

“The whole program has brought hundreds, if not thousands, into our church,” Wyatt said.

Some of these people were even actors or backstage help in the productions.

“We know that it’s important to include both professional and amateur performers when you’re trying to do something of quality, because not every parish has a stable full of professionals. It’s also good for amateurs to work with professionals,” Wyatt said.

However, doing a play at a Catholic parish can be a bit disorienting for someone who has had little to no exposure to Catholic culture. Although the cast members are not required to be of any particular faith, the location of the rehearsals and performances are undeniably Catholic. In addition, the last two performances were directed by Father Scott Bailey, who is the priest secretary of Archbishop Samuel Aquila.

Rachel Peoples served as stage manager for Arts at Cabrini’s most recent production, “Once Upon a Mattress.” She also helped Father Bailey with last year’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” She is not Catholic. In fact, she was raised Methodist and has since moved towardBuddhism. She said she was skeptical about doing a play with a priest at a Catholic parish.

“I had never even met a priest in real life, except the one who officiated my friend’s wedding,” she said.

She said she approached the auditions with reservations about how it would work. Then she met Father Bailey and realized they shared a sarcastic sense of humor. Then pastor Father Sean McGrath joined them, and began to crack jokes as well.

“I was like, ‘oh, you’re sarcastic, and we’re going to get along,’” Peoples said.
“I felt like everything the media had told me about priests was a lie.”

Peoples said her experience at Cabrini has shown her a side of Catholic culture she didn’t know existed.

“These people are like the nicest people ever. What’s cool is when you come into something, and it’s a culture you’re not a part of, whether it’s religion or whatever, you don’t want to insult anyone. You have to be really aware that you’re stepping into the playing ground. What’s amazing is I’ve never had a theater situation where I’ve felt more included,” she said. “There’s a part of me that would love to be Catholic, but I don’t think I’m wired that way. There’s a lot about the liturgy and the community that I find appealing.”

She said she has had some difficulty explaining to her friends how much she’s enjoyed her time at a Catholic church

“It’s about helping people understand that it’s about more than labels. Beauty is beauty. Regardless of what religious tradition you’re brought up in, God is beauty and God is joy. Those are universal truths. What theater allows us to do is sink into those universal truths.”

However, she said she understands that the situation is unusual.

“If you had told me two years ago that I was going to do a show with a priest, and be on the same wave length as him, and get along, I would have been like, ‘Uh-huh, good luck, future me,'” Peoples said.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”