On Friday, June 5, Bishop Sullivan announced a merger of the parishes in Atlantic City and the establishment of a new parish, the Parish of St. Monica. Selecting St. Monica as the patron saint and giving this new parish her name is something that has meaning on a number of levels.
One of the four merging parishes is of course named for her. This parish had originally begun as St. Monica Mission. It was founded for black American Catholics in 1917 by Emma “Mother” Lewis, an important figure who contributed to the growth of the Catholic Church in Atlantic City during its earlier days.
Most people are probably also not aware that the second parish in Atlantic City had originally been named St. Monica. It began in 1877 as a mission of St. Nicholas of Tolentine and was later established as a parish in 1894. After a fire destroyed the church and it was rebuilt in 1897, the name was then changed to Our Lady Star of the Sea.
These appearances of the name and patronage of St. Monica are interesting historical notes and things to consider. As a saint in her own right, though, Monica is primarily remembered as the devoted mother of St. Augustine, the great fourth century bishop and doctor of the Church. Today, mother and son enjoy back-to-back feast days: St. Monica on Aug. 27 and St. Augustine on Aug. 28.
But for the new parish covering all of Atlantic City, the most significant reason that it shall be named for St. Monica is because of her role as a determined evangelizer throughout her lifetime.
In the year 387, St. Monica died in Ostia, the harbor area south of Rome. She and Augustine were preparing to return by ship to their homeland in North Africa but Monica became ill before they could make the journey. She was 56 years old and had lived a holy life as a Christian wife and mother.
Earlier in her life, Monica had married a man who was not a Christian and this made for significant difficulties in their family life. For example, her husband did not want their children to be baptized and this grieved her a great deal.
But Monica never gave up and each day would pray fervently for the conversion of her husband. Augustine writes about how his father would become annoyed to see his mother Monica praying, going to church, and showing Christian charity toward the poor. But at a deeper level, according to Augustine, he did have a sincere respect for his wife. Monica’s Christian ways had just always seemed a bit strange to him.
Eventually, the prayers and example of St. Monica paid off and her husband converted and was baptized. He died the following year.
By this time, Monica’s children were grown. Augustine, who was her oldest son, was regarded as a brilliant and talented young man. Yet as gifted as he was, he was not particularly interested in following the religion of his mother and later his father. Augustine was keen on doing his own thing and tried to avoid situations when his mother would be praying or involved with religious activities. He certainly did not want to hear from her why he should embrace and live out the Christian faith.
Much of this could sound completely familiar to a number of Catholic parents today.
For her son, St. Monica was once again a model for evangelization. She gave witness to Jesus Christ and was faithful to the Church, primarily within her own home as well as to the people she interacted with every day.
Once again, God heard her prayers and blessed her efforts. Sixteen years after her husband converted, Monica’s son Augustine was baptized at the Easter Vigil. There were other persons who also influenced him to change his life and take that important step. But in God’s providence, the prayers and efforts of a mother are always some of the most important ways that children come to embrace the Catholic Faith.
Augustine went on to be one of the greatest and most important saints of the Church. His famous autobiography called “Confessions” is the main source for what we know about his mother, Monica, and her example of unwavering dedication to Jesus Christ and his Church which eventually won over those closest to her.
St. Augustine’s baptism took place in the northern Italian city of Milan. Afterward, he and his mother prepared to return from Italy to their homeland in northern Africa but because of the deterioration of her health, they were never able to leave the harbor city of Ostia.
St. Monica knew that soon she would meet the Lord. Her son was heartbroken, not only because his mother was dying, but also because she would not die and be buried in her homeland.
In his “Confessions,” Augustine records the moving scene and his mother’s words to him that put things in their proper perspective. She told him, “Bury my body wherever you will, do not be concerned about that. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord.”
Those words of St. Monica have gone down in history and demonstrate what we believe as Catholics — she speaks about the importance of praying for the dead but also, and above all, prayer “at the altar of the Lord” — having a Mass offered for a person who has died.
There is further consideration that comes from St. Monica’s words and which relates to the merger of the parishes in Atlantic City and establishment of a new parish dedicated to her. When Monica saw that her son was deeply bothered because she would not die and be buried in their homeland, she brings up one of the most important things for a Catholic in this life: that in many ways it is the Eucharist which matters the most and that wherever the Sacrament of the Altar is celebrated, our spiritual needs will be met and our prayers will be heard.
The first Mass in Atlantic City was celebrated 160 years ago on a dining room table. It was celebrated by a priest who traveled 60 miles by train from Philadelphia along the Camden and Atlantic Railroad which was completed less than a year before. Atlantic City itself was a city in its infant stages then, it had only been incorporated in 1854.
The celebration of that first Mass was actually an event that was carefully documented. Catholics at the time understood that it marked an important moment in the beginnings of the Church’s work in the city.
In the decades that have followed, the Church’s ministry has taken on different forms and included the involvement of many Catholics from a broad variety of cultures and backgrounds. Through it all though, what has united all Catholics in Atlantic City to God and to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ is what takes place “at the altar of the Lord.” This is a consideration that St. Monica herself has given us in what she said to her son at the end of her life.
For the parish transformations that will now take place in Atlantic City, reflections from St. Monica’s life can serve as a kind of compass as the Church in that city moves forward. St. Monica, the patron saint of Atlantic City’s Catholic parish, teaches us that the Holy Eucharist, wherever it is celebrated, must be the steadying anchor for the followers of Jesus.
Any uneasiness that people feel about a parish merger as well as any difficulties or challenges related to a merger will eventually come to an end as the community moves forward. What remains through it all though is what takes place “at the altar of the Lord.” That is where a parish family receives what it needs to grow in holiness as well as the spiritual nourishment to evangelize the people around them.
Father James L. Bartoloma, J.C.L. is chancellor of the Diocese of Camden and Director of the Office of Pastoral Planning.