Surviving Without Online Communication? St. Mary of the Assumption (Elizabeth, NJ)

While travelling in New Jersey over the Christmas season, I caught some news stories about controversy over the reassignment of priests from St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, part of the Archdiocese of Newark. Without wading into the reasons for the dispute and perception of discord between some parishioners and the archdiocese, I hope this parish’s future will include an extension into digital/online communication. Right now, it seems surprising that the parish is attempting to sustain such a large breadth of ministries and outreach to a rapidly growing Hispanic community without it. 

I was baffled as I tried to find more information on this parish and the ministries mentioned in the news articles. For starters, I could not locate a parish website or social media feed. The externally maintained listing on Parishesonline.com accurately named only one priest actually mentioned by the recent newspaper reports as part of the pastoral staff. The parish listing on the archdiocesan website had no email addresses or names of staff, only phone and fax numbers. The parish’s food pantry was listed on two external sites (here and here), yet without a direct e-mail contact or donation button. The only social media use I could find was an online petition requesting a meeting with the Archbishop and a closed-member Facebook group — both established recently in response to the reassignment of the parish priests.

These external sites yielded nearly no substantive information on the ministry team/staff, ministries of the parish, parish finance council or parish council. Not a lot of transparency if I was interested in donating to support the parish’s valuable community ministries. Not particularly helpful if I was a Hispanic youth from the surrounding neighborhood using my smartphone to ask questions about God, faith, and where I could find a church home.

This all made me wonder, how can this parish thrive (or even survive) in evangelization, raising funding to support social services, and conducting general outreach given the neighborhood demographics? 

While by no means a precise characterization of the parish geographic boundaries, a quick look at demographic data from the parish’s zip code reveals a neighborhood that is about 51% Hispanic or Latino (mostly of Columbian or Cuban ancestry), with a younger-than-average median age of 34.

What do we know about Hispanics and internet/social media use? Some food for thought:

  • 61 percent of Hispanics use social media for personal purposes, business and self-promotion
  • 85 percent of young Hispanics between the ages of 18 to 29 utilize the Internet
  •  90 percent of Hispanics have cell phones and 53 percent use smart phones to access the Internet
  • 48 percent of Hispanics prefer to shop online 
  • Hispanics use Twitter at a rate of 18 percent compared to whites at 5 percent

So, if the neighborhood of St. Mary of the Assumption is becoming increasingly Hispanic, it would seem that a mobile-device enabled website and use of social media are essential for reaching the people of the community, especially younger Hispanics. How important is this? According to a recent Barna Group report (Hispanics & Faith in 2012), roughly 68% of Hispanic self-identified Catholics are “non-practicing.”  

One would also think that internet and social media resources would be useful for recruiting volunteers, financial support, and material donations for the dozens of ministries the parish hopes to sustain. While the parish has been able to continue its valuable ministries to this point without online communications, it’s important to ask if the lack of internet and social media presence is limiting the potential of St. Mary of the Assumption parish as it heads into the future.

As an outsider looking in, I’m making observations based on the limited info I could find.  If anyone has good links to more info on this parish and its ministries, please share! I would love to update this post with good news about how digital communications help support the vital mission of St. Mary of the Assumption. 

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