Father David Beaubien, the pastor of St. Aloysius Parish in Leonardtown, greets Genna Vavrus, Sloan Koviak and Grace Tennyson at the “Connect 2 Christ” evangelization booth sponsored by Catholic parishes in St. Mary’s County during the recent fair there. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Father David Beaubien, the pastor of St. Aloysius Parish in Leonardtown, greets Genna Vavrus, Sloan Koviak and Grace Tennyson at the “Connect 2 Christ” evangelization booth sponsored by Catholic parishes in St. Mary’s County during the recent fair there. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
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Somewhere between the carnival rides, cotton candy, pig races, and prize-winning produce, visitors to St. Mary’s County Fair could take a “selfie” with Pope Francis. Held Sept. 18-21 in Leonardtown, anyone strolling by the roasted peanut salesman and stopping by the “Connect 2 Christ” booth could stand next to a life-size replica of the pope as volunteers from local Catholic parishes took a photo.

“I think it’s great to be at a place like this – to be visible and available for people of all walks of life,” said Jane Burke. “It’s an invitation.” Burke is a parishioner at St. Aloysius Parish in Leonardtown, where the evangelization team led by Deb Vavrus coordinated the outreach.

Vavrus explained that about 40 volunteers from St. Aloysius and three other southern Maryland parishes signed up for 2-hour shifts. The volunteers handed out pamphlets, books, and rosary beads, shared CD recordings and even gave out cross necklaces and temporary tattoos reading “I love Jesus” to the children. They distributed a map featuring all the Catholic parishes in Southern Maryland and took prayer intentions from visitors who shared stories of their own encounters with Christ.  “People will come in and they want to share their faith journey – they want to tell people how they came to Christ,” Vavrus said.

On Sunday – Family Day at the fair – the booth stood out among the other tents with bright red signs boldly proclaiming, “Connect 2 Christ” but most people took a second look as they recognized Pope Francis’ face beckoning from the corner.

Vavrus said she got the idea to include the Holy Father’s likeness when she saw a similar life-size cut out at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmittsburg during a youth retreat. At the time, she saw many young people taking self-portraits with the pontiff, and recalled thinking “this is fabulous, I can’t believe how cool this is.”

She said the evangelization team began thinking about ways to reach out into the community and first began renting a space at the fair three years ago as a “safe place to evangelize the Catholic faith and bring people to Christ.” What began as one tent quickly grew to two the following year as the team searched for ways to draw people to the exhibit including giving away brightly colored helium-filled balloons. Parishioner Josh Frauenfelder, a graphic design artist, provided many of the professional signs for the booth. This year, Vavrus estimated the cost of renting the space and exhibit materials came to about $1,000 – shared by St. Aloysius and other parishes across the county.

However Vavrus said no matter the price, she would still continue in the evangelization ministry. “Because I love God,” Vavrus said, “I want everyone to love Him.” She recalled one story from an earlier fair of a woman who asked many questions, took some informational pamphlets and eventually joined the RCIA program at the parish. The woman was baptized the following Easter and continues to attend St. Aloysius, Vavrus explained.

On the fair’s last day, St. Aloysius parishioner Matt Mattingly described how he helped set up the exhibit and staffed a shift for each of the four days of the fair. “I think it’s had a positive effect,” said Mattingly, a member of the Knights of Columbus. “I’m really into my religion,” he added, “it’s one of my biggest priorities.”

Another volunteer, Marion McAloon said over the weekend she visited with several people who were new to the county and appreciative of the map showing all of the county’s Catholic parishes. She also handed out a Bible to a member of the military who recently relocated to the area and couldn’t find his Bible. 

Jayne Rivers said the booth provided a great resource for visitors and helped volunteers feel comfortable approaching others about their faith. “We’ll be back next year.”