Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Chewelah secretary’s juggling act: family plus not one, but four, parishes
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the March 20, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
Brenda St. John began working for St. Mary of the Rosary Parish, Chewelah, in 1991. (IR photo courtesy of Brenda St. John)
Priests aren’t the only ones these days who sometimes serve more than one parish. Brenda St. John, secretary for St. Mary of the Rosary Parish, Chewelah, also serves in the same capacity for three other parishes: Holy Ghost in Valley, Sacred Heart in Springdale, and St. Joseph in Jump Off Joe.
“I quit my job as a mining engineer in 1986,” she said, “shortly after my first child was born. (In 1980, she had graduated from what is now the University of Montana with a degree in Geological Engineering.) “A couple of years later, Father Sev Westbrook (pastor at the time) asked me to take over the bookkeeping for St. Mary of the Rosary Parish.” By then, Brenda said, she and her husband, Reed St. John, “had two babies, and I didn’t feel that I could do it.” Father Westbrook “continued to ask me a few more times over the next couple of years, and I finally agreed in 1991 when he promised me it wouldn’t take more than eight hours per week.” Another incentive: “My two-year-old came to work with me every day.”
When she took up her duties as the new parish secretary, “the church was keeping all its financial records on ledger sheets and the bulletins were still being typed with a typewriter.” So the first thing she did was modernize the parish office by purchasing a computer.
In the spring of 1992, Chewelah’s only pre-school closed. Recognizing a challenge and a need when she saw one, St. John decided to start a new pre-school at St. Mary of the Rosary Parish. Her two of her own children were among the students of St. Mary’s first pre-school class. “They are now a sophomore in college and a high school senior, and our pre-school is still going strong,” she said. “We have an excellent staff and always have a waiting list.”
With some 17 years behind her as a parish secretary, “The best thing about my job is that I have always been able to work it around my children’s schedules,” she said. “I started out struggling to find eight free hours a week to work, and when Father Al Grasher (the next pastor) was assigned to our parish in 1993, he wanted me to increase my hours to 14 a week.”
About this same time, pastoral assignments were re-shuffled, and Father Grasher became the pastor also of the parishes in Valley, Springdale, and Jump Off Joe. Suddenly, St. John found herself with the office duties to manage for three other small parishes, in addition to her duties at her home parish. On top of all this, she says, “My fourth child was born in 1994, which made it harder for me to work during the day, so I did some of my work in the evenings while my older children were at basketball practice or ballet lessons, and my husband was home with the baby. Until she was old enough for pre-school, there was a lot of juggling going on, and my hours were very erratic.”
During these years, sometimes St. John was in and out of the parish office several times a day. She did parish office work between taxiing her kids around to their various activities. In the last few years, however, the parish secretary’s life has settled down some. She still adapts her work schedule to the school schedule, however, with all of its late starts, snow days, early releases, and vacations. “My youngest is now in eighth grade,” she said, “but I still like to be home when she is home. Working for the church has worked out very well with raising my family, and the work itself is very fulfilling.”
Today, Brenda describes her work as doing “pretty much everything that needs to be done. I do all the bookkeeping, all the secretarial, I do all the financial reports, and I keep track of the financial records for all four parishes.” She also keyboards each week’s Sunday bulletin, which goes to all four parishes, and maintains all the sacramental records and the records for the parish’s 10-acre cemetery. To top it all off, she takes care of all parish correspondence.
“When my family keeps me really busy,” she said, “I am grateful for the routine of my job, and when things are going even keel at home, I’m happy to have something new going on at the parish office. Most of the time there is a successful counterbalance.”
Being a parish secretary has an impact on her Catholic faith. “As a cradle Catholic,” she said, “I took many things about my faith for granted. Since I started working in the church office, I’ve learned much more about Catholicism, and this has strengthened my faith and enriched my life.”
Since 2002, St. Mary of the Rosary’s secretary has worked with the current pastor, Father José Luis Millan. “We have a great office,” she says with enthusiasm. “The six people on our staff are all very dedicated, and everyone gets along well. We work hard to keep everything operating smoothly for all of our parishes. I enjoy going to work each day and feel that I am where God wants me at this time in my life. I love my job.”