As pastor of Mater Dei Parish, Vocationist Father Rijo Johnson can’t see everything with his own two eyes at the four churches spread throughout the Northeast Kingdom.

But thanks to a core group of church “coordinators” at the churches in Newport, Derby Line, West Charleston and Island Pond, he has not only eyes on the facilities but on the needs of the church communities.

He and the two other priests of the Society of Divine Vocations that serve the widespread parish and live at the rectory in Newport can’t “check every corner” of the churches when they are there for Masses, so having local parishioners checking on the facilities is a comfort as well as an important service.

But more than checking on facilities, the coordinators set up for Masses, oversee Covid-19 protocols and ensure liturgical roles such as that of lectors are filled — freeing the priests to focus on the celebration of the Mass and on the sacraments.

“We help the priests to do their duties because they have a lot on their plates … and it is hard to be in four churches and have nursing home and prison [responsibilities],” said Anita Gervais who is a coordinator at St. James the Greater Church in Island Pond — about 45 minutes from Newport — with her sister-in-law, Jocelyn Gervais, and Maggie Machinist. “There is only so much they can do.”

And serving as coordinators gives parishioners a special role in the parish and a sense of ownership.

“As coordinators, we know what our church needs,” said Gervais, who wanted to volunteer for her church after she retired from a rental housing business. These needs can range from church repairs to cemetery care to home visits by priests.

The faith of the coordinators at each church “has so much to do (with their desire) to keep the churches alive,” said Retha Piette of St. Mary Star of the Sea Church and a coordinator of the coordinators.

Because of the size of the parish — a merger of three parishes — Father Johnson wanted “to coordinate efforts,” she said while also providing consistency and sustainability in church leadership.

The Vocationist priests that serve the parish are routinely transferred, but the parish coordinators are invested in their church for the long haul. They know how to connect with the parish priests and share with then the concerns and ideas parishioners bring to them.

“The coordinators keep the churches in synch and have the responsibility to be sure everything goes well at Masses, and that takes the load off the priests,” Piette said. “This allows us to be active and keep our churches going and the priests to serve the people.”

They meet as a coordinators group monthly via Zoom during the pandemic, and each church also has a monthly meeting that anyone can join to speak with the coordinators. “It’s a way to get more people involved,” Father Johnson said.

“Father is doing a lot to keep the churches active,” said Piette, whose husband is a coordinator at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church.

Parish activities include a prayer group, men’s and women’s groups, nightly rosary, adoration, bible study and online programs.

Father Johnson gives God the glory for what is happening at Mater Dei Parish and said he wants parishioners to do what they do for the parish out of love.

“People love their church and want to keep it active,” Piette said.

“It is really very, very impressive as [Father Johnson] seeks to call forth the laity and equip them to minister to the people,” said Deacon Phil Lawson, executive director of evangelization, catechesis, divine worship, marriage and family and respect life for the Diocese of Burlington, who assisted with a recent retreat directed at the parish coordinators [although open to everyone] so they could be further formed to then better lead the others they work with. “It’s really much of what the [Diocesan] Synod called for in terms of lay involvement being put into practice.”