WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Pat Heck and Alana LaPerle are leaders in the Alpha program which is bringing Catholics back to active participation in Sherwood Park's Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish.
Nelson LaPerle, a non-practising Catholic, is happy he attended the recent Alpha program at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park.
"It was a good experience for me; Alpha strengthened my understanding of God and Jesus and gave me a better understanding of my faith and a better ability to communicate about it," he said in an interview.
"I feel I'm on a journey and Alpha took me a little further on that journey. What that's going to mean in the end, I still don't know."
LaPerle said the program offered a good environment to learn and to meet and talk with other participants. "The whole experience was very positive; you create relationships with many of those people."
Prior to attending the program, LaPerle would attend Mass every five or six weeks. "I still don't go every week but I've probably gone most Sundays since then."
LaPerle, whose wife Alana LaPerle helped bring the program to OLPH, is one of about 100 people who attended the 10-week Alpha program since it began in September. The program formally concluded Jan. 15 with a celebration supper at the parish hall.
Alpha is a practical introduction to the Christian faith and a great opportunity to make new friends and become part of the community. Designed primarily for non-churchgoers, inactive and new Christians, Alpha is also ideal for fostering a deeper personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
Alana LaPerle, Pat Heck and her husband Jerry Heck are the Alpha team members who brought the program to the parish. The three served on OLPH's stewardship council 11 years ago and at that time they looked at Alpha as a way to reignite the faith and the sense of stewardship in the parish.
"But the time wasn't right 11 years ago," said Alana LaPerle.
In the spring of 2013 the trio learned about a province-wide Alpha campaign and decided now was the time to bring Alpha to their parish.
But the real push, the team members say, came from Archbishop Richard Smith's pastoral letter calling for a new evangelization. "We felt that getting involved in Alpha as a finale to the Year of Faith made perfect sense for our parish," Alana LaPerle pointed out. "We thought the time was right."
The team members felt OLPH would benefit from Alpha because many of its 5,300 families are not active in the parish, do not attend Mass every week and do not feel connected to the parish.
"Many of those who attend Mass every week do not have a sense of the basics of the faith and they admit that," Alana LaPerle said. "They are Catholic because they were raised Catholic and they are sacramentalized but they have never been evangelized; they don't know their faith."
Heck said Alpha is not about feeding people head knowledge but bringing them into a relationship with Jesus Christ and allowing Jesus to form them. "So it's moving your faith from your head to your heart."
According to the team members, Alpha is successful because it answers the questions that people are asking today such as Is God real? What is the purpose and meaning of life?
In addition, Alpha is user friendly as it is presented in everyday language and is full of stories and illustrations.
Each session begins with a meal or refreshments and a chance to get to know others in the small group. This is followed by a short talk and a time of discussion; all participants are welcome to ask questions and share their opinions.
The Alpha participants were divided int0 10 small groups of eight to 10. A trained Alpha host was at every table.
Heck said following their participation in Alpha, several people came back to the parish after 13 to 20 years away. There are currently attending Landings, a program for returning Catholics. Others went from being neutral Christians to being active in their faith.
About 30 per cent of participants vowed to attend Mass more regularly. The same number said they would volunteer more in the parish.
Alana LaPerle said 66 per cent of participants said they attended Alpha because they wanted to learn more and 66 per cent said they in fact learned more about Christian beliefs. More than 70 per cent said Alpha strengthened their existing faith.
To the members of the team, these figures are significant, especially considering the fact "many of the responded were regular pew-sitting Catholics."
Many participants say they made strong bonds of friendship and community through the Alpha program.
"That was significant for everyone that attended because as we journeyed along people became comfortable with each other. By the third evening they were animated, they were laughing, they were joking and they were enjoying the experience," related Heck.
"You began to see community being built right in your midst and that's one of the strong things about Alpha and what evangelization is all about – it's building a community of faith that loves to be with each other."
The OLPH Alpha team is so enthused with the program they plan to present a Youth Alpha at Archbishop Jordan High School starting in February.
And come spring, another Alpha program geared specifically to young adults will be presented at OLPH.
Heck said the word has gone out that "Alpha is a wonderful program" and many parishioners have expressed interest in attending.
"So we are going to give them that opportunity and we are going to open it up to whoever comes," she said. "I can foresee us continuing (offering Alpha) a couple of times a year to reignite the faith of the Catholic people and to re-evangelize the evangelized."
St. Michael's Catholic Parish in Calgary has been an Alpha community for 15 years, during which time it has seen its congregation grow by more than 30 per cent. Furthermore, its ministries are active, dynamic and growing.
Alpha originated in the Church of England and is now used by churches of many traditions, including hundreds of Catholic parishes. More than 20 million people have taken the Alpha course since it was introduced in 1992.
Alpha can be adapted to any location and circumstance, including the home, the workplace, prisons and universities. For instance, Alana LaPerle did it at home for her two teenage sons and her husband. "The four of us did that and it was a wonderful family experience."
Nelson LaPerle is now considering attending the second Alpha course that will begin in the spring.