By Debbie Shelley
The Catholic Commentator
The newly opened Full of Grace Café at Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant is a collective dream of its parishioners and pastor Father Josh Johnson that is meeting the needs of the less fortunate and giving them hope for a better future.
Bishop Michael Duca blesses the new Full of Grace Café as well as the people attending the ceremony. Photo by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator
The full name of the café is: “Full of Grace Café: Quenching God’s Thirst for Charity and Justice.” And the facility, indeed, is a story of grace for the church and community, according to Father Johnson.
When he was appointed in 2017 he came into a parish still reeling from the effects of the flood of 2016. Father Johnson slept in a room above the choir loft, as the parish rectory had been extensively damaged and was about to be torn down.
But soon the intercessory prayers of cloistered nuns for Holy Rosary parishioners and himself that Father Johnson requested before coming to the parish began their transformative work.
It started with an idea to move the parish’s food pantry, founded by Mrs. Ronie Tureau, closer to the church.
Father Johnson prayed and listened to parishioners’ stories as he visited them and blessed their homes. He heard many expressing a hunger to better know Jesus/God/Holy Spirit, so they could be in an intentional relationship with him.
Through a coordinated effort, small group Scripture studies were formed, said parish administrator Jennifer Morales.
“The fruits of our small group Scripture studies have been an awareness of our need to engage and serve the poor,” Morales said.
The brainstorming and offering of gifts and talents by parishioners snowballed into the idea of offering one-stop services and evangelization.
“The cool thing is that people are coming to the table collectively. Someone will say, ‘Hey I can do this,’ or ‘I can do that,’ ” said Father Johnson. “We came to the table so we can experience the gift of poverty.”
In the spring, the Holy Rosary Pastoral and Finance councils unanimously passed a proposal submitted by parishioners that the flooded and abandoned rectory be converted into The Full of Grace Café, said Morales.
The cost of the renovations was $196,000 and the expenses were paid through insurance funds, donations from other Catholic churches and a portion of the proceeds of the church’s La Fête des Bayous festival in 2017.
On Dec. 1, parishioners and people from the surrounding community packed the church for the vigil Mass, celebrated by Bishop Michael G. Duca, then walked next door for the bishop’s blessing of the facility. They also were able to tour the renovated building, which was chock full with homey features as well as supplies. There was a stocked food pantry and diaper pantry, soup kitchen, places for people to eat, a small group area where people could enjoy a cup of coffee and a pool table. There’s also an apartment for visiting religious and missionaries.
Karen Savoy, director of Full of Grace Café, said the parish was overwhelmed by donations.
“When God’s hands are in it, there’s nothing you can’t do,” said Savoy.
Joshua Lopez, who will direct the diaper pantry with his wife Suzanne, had recently moved to St. Amant from Kansas and found working with Full of Grace an opportunity to “plug in” to the community.
“Because of their poverty, the choice for parents is sometimes between buying food and diapers,” said Joshua Lopez.
Parents will sometimes wrap plastic grocery bags around paper towels as makeshift diapers or rewash diapers, according to the Lopez.
Suzanne Lopez said a federal assistance program covers the cost of diapers, baby wipes and creams.
“I dealt with a grandmother raising a grandchild who said, ‘I don’t know how I would make it without the diaper bank’ and she talked about how she survives day after day,” she said.
St. John Primary School in Prairieville and St. Theresa Middle School in Gonzales filled the diaper pantry by collecting thousands of diapers and “too many wipes to count,” said Suzanne Lopez.
The generosity spilling out of the café can change the hearts of those who enter there, she said.
“When people come in, we will not only feed them physically, but spiritually as well,” said Savoy. “People can come together and drink coffee, have fun and do life together. It doesn’t matter where you are in your finances or if you’re Catholic or not, it’s about coming together as community.”
“Everything about this is down to earth,” said Cathy St. Pierre of Paulina. “It’s going to bring people together for fellowship and faith.”
“People are coming out of the woodwork so they can connect with each other,” said Barbara Schexnayder, also of Paulina.
Parishioner Randy Tullier said, “Hopefully we will get people from the entire area. We don’t cater to Catholics only, we cater to all people.”
“It was really heart ripping when we heard that the rectory was going to be torn down. But renovating it into a café has really breathed new life into the community,” said Joshua Lopez.
The café is also serves a mission field as well.
“Our mission is to become intentional disciples of Jesus Christ so that we can become saints in our walk toward eternity. The café will give us an opportunity to live out the demands of discipleship for our sanctification and the sanctification of our entire community,” said Morales.
People entering the building are accompanied by Scripture verses and paintings of saints to let them know they have a heavenly connection of people interceding for them. And as people receive services or come together for Bible studies or praise and worship nights that spill out in the courtyard, conversations about faith take place, said Father Johnson. He said the purpose of the café is not to convert people to Catholicism, but many people who have come in for services return to attend Mass.
He emphasized the café’s mission is centered around the Eucharist.
“My desire is that we all understand the direct connection between loving God in the Eucharist and loving God in the poorest of the poor,” said Father Johnson. “To emphasize that the poor is the body of Christ among us.”