Submitted by Rick Hensel, Coordinator of Youth Ministry, St. Anthony & St. Agnes Church

“You came from among us to be, for us, one who serves. We thank you for ministering Christ to us and helping us minister Christ to each other.” These words were echoed by nearly 60 teen participants in the 2017 Summer Youth Program at Sacred Heart/St. Mary’s Church in New York Mills, as they prayed for their pastors on Sunday night, July 30. The Luau themed night was the conclusion of the five-week program sponsored by nearly 20 Catholic parishes in the Eastern region of the Diocese. In addition to the regularly scheduled program, this year the final night featured a “Priest Appreciation Dinner,” with most of the pastors of the sponsoring parishes in attendance. Before sharing a meal with the teens from their parishes, a prayer for priests was said. 

“The main objective of the summer program has always been to bring young people closer to Christ, and we thought, what better way to lead young people closer to Christ, than to bring them together with those who make Christ present in our lives,” said Dick Vetere, Co-Director of the Summer Youth Program.

While the pastors of the sponsoring parishes have always been welcome to attend, Vetere and Co-Director Rick Hensel thought the final night would be an exemplary gesture of their pastor’s dedication to their spiritual well being. In addition to the final night, one pastor closed each night of the program with a prayer, usually by the glow of the campfire.

The Priest Appreciation Dinner was not the only new attempt at evangelization this summer. Vetere and Hensel decided to add a night for families. A “Family Rec Nite” was held earlier in the summer and all families were invited to join the teens. Families shared a meal prepared by O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria in Utica, and then split into groups for a witness talk.    

“As the program has become a nearly region wide undertaking, we have tried little by little to make it a useful and engaging tool for the evangelization of teens. It started with the addition of a witness talk component, and we’ve really tried to add more of a formational element each year,” Vetere said. Each Sunday night, after dinner, college students and young professionals offered witness talks for the teens that served as a testament to their faith and how to keep Catholic in college and in their adult lives. 

On the night designated for families, when the teens went to listen to their talk, a separate talk was offered in the Church by parish leadership and clergy for their parents.

The Summer Youth Program, founded in 1995 by Vetere and Joe Tamer, was supported and nurtured by the parish community of Our Lady of the Rosary in New Hartford for 19 out of its 22 years. Since its inception, the program has brought teens together for a summer of fun, faith, and adventure. For two decades, the program has employed a staff of college students, who have touched the lives of countless teens with their witness to their faith. Three years ago, in response to Bishop Cunningham’s call to find new ways to work together, the Summer Youth Program became a collaborative effort of 18 local parishes and made the move from Our Lady of the Rosary to the campus of Sacred Heart/St. Mary’s Church on Main St. in New York Mills.

One parent commented that they loved that their child was able to meet new friends who shared their faith and that they found the witness talk piece to be “exceptional.” Teens also remarked that they appreciated how “genuine” the talks were and that they felt as though the young adult speakers were very relatable.

Traditionally, each Sunday night of July, the program has featured a different themed “Teen Nite Out” with themes including “Challenge Nite,” where teens participated in team building activities lead by the Oneida County Peacemaker Program; “Carnival Nite”; “Family Rec Nite”; “Splash Nite”; and “Luau Nite.” Every Wednesday of July, teens went on adventures to local destinations including Water Safari, Darien Lake, Howe Caverns, and Cooperstown.   

The program was funded thanks to the McDevitt Evangelization Grant and the 18 sponsoring parishes. The staff of nearly all college students was employed by the Oneida County College Corps. Internship Program.

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