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Aspen Project says parish is one organism

From understanding that a grove of aspen trees is one organism connected through its root system, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes named an outreach to parishioners with small, neighborhood groups the Aspen Project.

The aspen image also speaks of how the cathedral’s life of liturgy, art and music intertwine with its feeding homeless neighbors in downtown Spokane.

Steven Dublinski

Father Steven Dublinski

This year, the parish celebrates its 125th year, with roots starting in 1881 in a carpenter’s shop at Main and Bernard as St. Joseph’s.  It became Our Lady of Lourdes when it moved into a brick structure there in 1891.  In 1903, the cornerstone was laid for the present building, at Madison and Riverside, completed in 1913.

Within and emanating from that structure is a life of nurture of individuals, including distribution of about 1,300 sandwiches a month from the rectory by staff and volunteers.

Father Steven Dublinksi, the rector, sees tension among parishioners between their desire to respond to the call to holiness and the demands of life that pull them in many directions.

“Americans are busy people, involved in activities, often making it difficult to live reflective Gospel-centered lives,” he said.  “Many people in the pews and priests are pulled by these dynamics.  We need to live with these tensions as Christians.  It is part of the tensions of our times.”

Father Steve said both good and harm can come from the tension. 

“Many people are compassionate and willing to make extraordinary efforts to care for the poor, volunteering through Catholic Charities at St. Margaret Center, at the Women’s Hearth, at the House of Charity or at St. Anne’s Children and Family Center,” he said.

“Being  too involved sometimes competes with family life, which can be harmful,” he said. “As part of American culture, Catholics are not immune to the struggles.  So we seek to nurture families through small groups and liturgical life to help them live their calls in healthy ways.”

Liturgy and religious education introduce and nurture faith.

So does the Aspen Project.

“Aspen tree growth is a singular organism.  It appears to be many trees, but the roots are one body,” Father Steve said.  “Similarly, the body of Christ appears to be individuals, but it’s one body in Christ and the interconnections need nurturing.”

The Aspen Project is organizing groups throughout the city and county to strengthen both neighborhood bonds and families by helping people pay closer attention to the people around them. 

“It’s easier to know if a neighbor family or individual is in need if we are connected,” Father Steven said.  “If we know each other, we can be more effective at reaching out to others.”

After a year of planning, the project began a test run with 15 groups in October.  Those groups will meet for a while to learn what issues there are, what works, what does not work, what refinements are needed.

Participants start with learning about each other and then strengthening their bond in Christ to see how that compels them to move out of themselves to reach out to others.

To set up groups, organizers plotted on a map where the parishioners live.  Reports come in after meetings.  Each group decides how often they will meet—monthly or weekly—and what they want to study—Scripture, doctrine, issues or history.  Outreach will grow from the group, rather than from a particular model.

Steve Dublinski

Father Steve lights electric candle at foot of statue of St. Joseph.

While the cathedral’s parish is from downtown west to Airway Heights, it draws people from around the region because of the cathedral’s liturgy, music tradition and setting.

Some attend Sundays only.  The Aspen Project seeks to increase participation in liturgy and the full life of faith.

Lourdes offers 6:30 a.m. and noon Masses daily, drawing Catholics from downtown.  There are five weekend Masses—one Saturday evening, three Sunday morning and one Sunday evening.  There are also evening prayer services during the week, study of Scriptures and personal prayer times.

Father Steve celebrates two weekend Masses.

Also helping celebrate Masses are Father Vincent Van Dao, Father Patrick Baraza, Father Stan Malnar, Msgr. Robert Pearson and sometimes the bishop.

Living in the rectory with Father Steve is a mini international community with Father Vincent, who is Vietnamese, and Father Patrick of Kenya, who teaches Islam at Gonzaga University.

Father Steve continues international ties he began when he studied as one of 200 Americans at the North American College in Rome, attending different universities.  He studied theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas with people from around the world—Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Central America.

“It gave me a broader vision of the Catholic Church, in touch with its being the universal church of many cultures and languages.  It’s a challenge for us in the United States to realize there are challenges elsewhere in the world, often more fundamental challenges than our own.”

Father Steve said it affects even now how he preaches. 

“I try not to present the faith as America-centric, but preach the Gospel from a worldwide perspective related to issues of justice and poverty,” he said.

“Anything we do to keep our perspective broad makes us better Catholics.  Narrowing our concerns makes us less effective Catholics.  People always tend to look at things from their own perspectives.  The Gospel calls us out of that perspective. It’s a natural dynamic and struggle.  We constantly need to be pulled back into the Gospel perspective.”

Even in pastoral care, as one-to-one individual attention, he seeks to pull people out of their self-focus.  He realizes that Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

“Looking from the perspective of the other is the constant call of the church,” Father Steve said.

From growing up in Walla Walla, where he went to high school and his first year of college, he completed studies in philosophy at Gonzaga University in 1981 before he went to Rome.

He first considered becoming a priest after he graduated from high school.

“It came with a shift from the faith I grew up with to a faith I took responsibility for—from childhood to adult faith,” Father Steve said.  “Given the gift of faith in God, I then asked what my responsibility was.  Exploring my call, I saw my gifts and talents could be of use to the church.”

Returning from Rome, he was ordained at St. Patrick’s Church in Walla Walla and began serving St. John Vianney in Spokane in 1985.  In 1989, he went to St. Charles; 1996, to St. Mary’s in Spokane Valley, and in 2002 to parishes in Rosalia, Tekoa, Oakesdale, Rosalia and St. John. 

While serving at St. Mary’s Parish, he began assisting Bishop William Skylstad as vicar general.  During his first months assisting the bishop, the sexual abuse crisis began to unfold.  After a year of pastoring a large parish and working for the bishop it became clear that a smaller pastoral assignment was necessary.  Serving the rural parishes allowed Father Steven to focus five days a week on needs of the diocese and left the weekends for pastoral ministry in the rural communities.

In the summer of 2004, Bishop Skylstad reassigned Father Steve to be rector at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, across the street from the diocesan office.

“Our diocese is small, so priests help in diocesan administration as well as pastoral ministry,” he said.  “We bring a pastoral perspective to administration.  I see myself first as a pastor, asking how decisions affect other pastors and people in the pews.  I care about people and connect administrative decisions to people’s lives.”

Father Steve said that for Catholics, there are many aspects of spiritual life, but “the source and summit is the celebration of Eucharist.  We start meetings with prayer, reflection on Scriptures and dialogue.  As Catholics, spiritual life is part of our whole life.”

Because of his passion for liturgy, he completed a four-summer-long degree in liturgy at Notre Dame University in 2002.  He is also on the board of directors for the national Federation of Diocesan Liturgy Commission.

That passion is accompanied by his passion to serve the poor—inspired through involvement with St. Charles’ Christmas dinner, which serves about 300 homeless and poor people each year.

At the cathedral, he helps  parish volunteers and staff who served four meals for homeless people downtown.

For example, for the Feast of St. Joseph, the cathedral served hot dogs and chili for five hours.  Staff sat, ate and talked with homeless people.  In August, they held a bluegrass festival in the parking lot, again serving hot dogs and chili while several blue grass groups played.  They served 500 hot dogs, 20 gallons of chili and 30 gallons of lemonade.

“When we ran low, we ran to the store,” he said.

For a fall Homeless Barbecue, the cathedral served 500 hamburgers.

“Jesus said when you have a party, invite everyone, the poor, lame and blind,” he said.

Some volunteers help serve.  Others sit with and listen to the stories of the people who come, many of whom struggle with mental illness or just need companionship.

“Cathedral staff love it when they have such opportunities to do the mission of Jesus, breaking bread in an open, inviting way.  It inflames our faith to connect with people around us,” said Father Steve, who has heard some homeless refer to the cathedral as “the party place.”

Caring for people because they are people—not to evangelize—is basic Gospel, reaffirmed in Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas.

“God’s loving us in Jesus inspires us to reach out in care and love to others,” Father Steve said.  “While there’s a potential evangelistic effect, that’s in God’s hands.  It’s the Catholic approach and the approach of Catholic Charities.”

Father Steve finds ecumenical relationships important for building understanding and unity. 

“We act together where we can do that, but we still have a long way to go,” he said.

For information, call 358-4290.


Copyright© December 2006 -The Fig Tree