by Angelina DeVincenzo
For the youth at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Orange Park, St. Augustine is considered mission territory.
Thirty-one years ago, St. Catherine’s began a close-to-home mission trip thanks to the inspiration of Msgr. Vincent Haut, a former pastor of the parish. Urban Plunge, as it came to be called, now
takes place in one week increments, twice every summer. High school students make Cathedral Parish School their home base and then split up into groups to take on different projects throughout the impoverished areas of St. Augustine.
According to St. Catherine’s youth minister, Robin Shipley, the Plunge mission trip serves a diverse group, namely the elderly and impoverished. She adds, “I don’t think people know that St. Augustine is one of the most impoverished areas.”
This summer, St. Catherine’s will bring about 70 teens to St. Augustine for Plunge.
“We complete about 80 projects by the time we are done,” shares Shipley.
A “project” can include anything from carpentry to painting – mostly on individual’s homes. “We have actually encountered homes without running water,” Shipley points out. “Our work is very extensive.”
Clients, as the homeowners are referred to, can apply for this mission work with organizations like the housing authority. The teens get to know some of these clients very well and they even go back around Christmas time to sing carols and bring gifts. “We try to teach the kids that this is a way of life,” says Shipley.
For Halie Bourre, a senior at Fleming Island High School, Plunge is as life-changing for her as it is to the clients. This summer she celebrated her birthday while participating in Plunge for the third year, and based on her radiant expression, she would have it no other way.
Halie describes an encounter she had on her birthday with a woman whose home they were working on. With tears in her lit up eyes she shares, “As soon as I finished talking with her, I was so filled with the Holy Spirit. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever had – I encountered Jesus.”
Halie is not alone in her love of Plunge. First-time Plunger and sophomore at Oakleaf High School, Dylan Fletcher stands on a ladder painting a home a shade of toasted coconut with a soft candlelight trim. Yes, he knows the name of each paint color. And yes, he is extremely excited about it. According to Dylan, “Plunge shouldn’t be a week; it should be a whole month.”
Plunge is a game changer for many students. Eddie Denfeld, now in his fourth year of Plunge, shares that his first trip to Plunge was merely for his friends that were going. At the time he claims, he was just going through the motions in his faith, but now, he’s not. “I am now an Extraordinary Minister of holy Communion because of Plunge.”
Katherine Eatough, a junior at Bishop Snyder High School relates, saying, “At first I just came because my friends asked me to but now I want to enrich my spiritual journey.”
And, according to Brittany Harrison, a recent Middleburg High School graduate, Plunge has moved her faith from words to action.
Not only is the work itself enriching, but for the youth, the entire week is full of sharing, praying together, attending Mass, and immersing themselves in scripture through the practice of Lectio Divina.
They work from 9:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. Even their lunch break takes place at a local soup kitchen where they gratefully eat whatever is being served that day.
Viewing one’s hometown as a destination for a mission trip is a rarity at best, but St. Catherine’s ability to see St. Augustine as mission territory is an undisputed blessing for all involved.
Putting compassion into action is exactly what Pope Francis had in mind when he called for a Jubilee Year of Mercy!
Photos by Woody Huband