Parish throws a party to bring community back together

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Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville hosted a parish festival on Sunday, Aug. 15, to help bring the parish community together following the last 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic. Pastor Father Austin Gilstrap takes a turn in the dunking booth.

When the country started to crawl out of its pandemic cocoon Father Austin Gilstrap, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville, was looking for a way to gather his parish community. 

He, the staff and lay leadership at Our Lady of the Lake settled on a parish festival – OLOL Summer Fest – held on Sunday, Aug. 15, to mark the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The parish also used that day to unveil a new logo for the parish. 

“We just had fun together,” said Father Gilstrap. “I didn’t know how much I needed it. How much I needed just to have fun. I had a blast.” 

The festival, held outdoors on the large field beside the church, included carnival games, music, food trucks, booths for various parish ministries, a farmer’s market, and a dunking booth. 

“Even before I came to Our Lady of the Lake as pastor, I knew Our Lady of the Lake was a tight community,” said Father Gilstrap, who served in the parish while he was a seminarian. “They love being together, but they’re not together just in their worship, but in their whole life.” 

That sense of togetherness had been frustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a sadness in people’s lives, he said. “We missed it so much.” 

“Events like these are great,” echoed Associate Pastor Luke Wilgenbusch. “You see all the different groups from the parish coming together.” 

Father Gilstrap, who became pastor in July 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, began thinking about having a parish-wide event to bring the community back together earlier this year, before the latest surge in cases. 

“We had come out of the crisis mode a little bit,” he said. “We knew we could have successful outdoors events” while maintaining the necessary precautions to protect people from the virus. 

He was also looking to capture a bit of the spirit of community events he saw while studying in Europe in which whole towns and villages would come out to celebrate a Church feast day. Because the Blessed Virgin is the parish’s patroness, Father Gilstrap selected the Solemnity of the Assumption as an opportunity for the community to come together to celebrate one of the big Marian feast days. 

“I appreciate all the hard work from the staff” and parishioners who helped organize the event, Father Gilstrap said, including Rhonda Wigger, Jennifer Harris, Carrie Melvin and Jonathan Corbitt. 

He’s hoping to hold similar events in the future, including the parish’s annual Oktoberfest, which was canceled last year due to the pandemic. 

Parishioners have been returning to the church, filling the pews at Sunday Masses, Father Gilstrap said. And the parish has continued to welcome new families moving into the area during the pandemic, he added. 

The parish ministries that were put on hold during the pandemic are starting to return, too, Father Gilstrap said. He likened it to a factory that had been shut down. “We’re working slowly and surely to turn everything back on.” 

During the pandemic, Our Lady of the Lake’s staff, like those around the diocese, found ways to use technology to reach out to parishioners and stay connected. But they also learned they can’t rely solely on technology. “Technology is a supplement, not a substitute,” Father Wilgenbusch said. 

“The personal connection is what people want,” with the proper protections in place, Father Gilstrap said. “Technology can’t replace that. We’re finding even a phone call is better than an email. A big outdoors event is better than a virtual online event.” 

“God created us to be in relationship with one another,” he said. “We value that so much more now.”  

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