In 2015, I had a three-year-old, a one-year-old, and a sudden panic about the world I was raising them in.
I have never been particularly outgoing, but when my first child was born, I found myself making friends more easily than ever before. Groups for natural parenting abounded. Every mother wanted what was best for her baby, and that seemed simple and wholesome: natural foods, gentle parenting, and plenty of unstructured outdoor play. It was delightful to instantly belong to a circle of women who really cared about their children and thought deeply about the choices they were making. We probably did not agree about politics or theology, but that seemed unimportant, as long as we could organize outdoor playgroups and share organic apples at the park.
Eventually, though, alarm bells began to ring in my mind. Certainly, library time was becoming less pleasant as I learned that even monosyllabic board books can carry a surprisingly aggressive social agenda. Other mothers were painting their sons’ fingernails, and questioning why I did not, leading to awkward exchanges I had not expected to have for another decade. These kinds of experiences seemed to keep increasing, but the final clarion call was an article about topics covered in local public education that sent me into a panic, as I realized that my children were going to need specifically Catholic friends, and sooner than I had expected.
Despite living in a heavily Catholic area, I had no idea where to start. I had attended a Catholic college, but everyone I knew from there lived at least three hours away. I had taught Catholic school in the closest city, but only two friends from those schools actually seemed to believe what they were teaching. Finally, I called our local parish, despite my distrust of the system, and asked about the preschool program they offered on Sundays. It turned out to be mostly babysitting for parents at the early Mass, something I did not know Catholics even did, but as I listened to the DRE apologetically describe the lackluster program from Our Sunday Visitor, I dimly recalled the Atrium which I had visited in college, and I wondered if there was one nearby.
I had not felt drawn to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program when I visited it years ago; Montessori pedagogy is not my preference. But beggars cannot be choosers, and twenty minutes away, there was a calm, attractive classroom, filled with traditional religious imagery, run by a knowledgeable and devout woman who led a group of small children through Bible readings, prayers, and hands-on activities for two hours every week. And there were other Catholic children there – even some who attended the Latin Mass.
Next, after scouring the Internet, I learned of a group of Catholic mothers getting together to celebrate the beginning of Advent. It was an hour away in a direction I had never been, and my baby did not care for the car. Over his wails on the ride there, I asked myself why I was doing this – I hardly needed friends who lived an hour away. And what if some of these women lived even farther in the opposite direction? But I went anyway, out of desperation, and was rewarded with a new friend: another mother who had similarly transported a fussy baby to the ends of the earth, from the same area I lived in, in the hopes of making likeminded friends.
Over the next year, she and I began plotting how we might create our own miniature Benedict Option. We picked a name for our fledgling group (in Latin, hoping this would subtly signify our intentions), and decided against trying to obtain any sort of parish or diocesan affiliation. This is unfortunate, because doing so would have allowed us to more easily reach others, but prior experiences with the institutional Church had convinced us we needed to maintain independence and control of our group. Our goal was simple: we wanted to build some genuine Catholic community for our children and ourselves. We decided to meet formally once a month, pray the Rosary together, and serve a casual brunch. Within that framework, we hoped friendships would flourish, and people would arrange more informal gatherings themselves.
We next set out to recruit. My new friend’s strategy included approaching women who had small children and wore chapel veils, at a traditionally-oriented Novus Ordo church near her. I pilfered a few members from a Catholic homeschool group that was too widespread to serve our purposes, but did have some representatives in our immediate area. I also noticed that someone in a secular homeschooling group had listed a conservative Catholic college on her social media profile, and I reached out to her as well. After we started meeting, and especially after attending Masses together (a dozen or so children at a daily Mass do tend to attract notice), we received a few inquiries from parishioners who knew other mothers who might be interested.
Over time, we built up a sizeable mailing list, although not everyone came to everything regularly. We were able to add a monthly mothers’ night in, and we fell into a pattern of getting together at playgrounds during the week, frequently attending Mass together first. Mothers and children within the group formed independent friendships and found interests in common, and various members took the initiative to host multi-family celebrations of liturgical feasts, such as bonfires for St. John’s nativity, Easter Eggs hunts during the actual Easter season, and Epiphany parties. We came to rely on one another for childcare, for providing meals when someone has a new baby or a death in the family, and for day-to-day support in living out our vocations. Although our children remain the focus of the group, it turned out that the adults desperately needed this community, too.
One strength of the group we have formed is that we have always had a number of different, while still orthodox, perspectives and preferences. Our members have fallen across the spectrum regarding the Latin Mass, exclusively wearing skirts, veiling, homeschooling, and similar issues. One reason for this is practical; if we set narrow barriers to entry, we would never have found enough people to form a group in the first place. A second reason, however, is that this adds a healthy amount of variety to our group. Community requires that we have something in common: our faith, our convictions, our dedication to our families. But in order to grow true community, we also need to be open to some differences. After all, our intention was to find some Catholic friends for our children; not to start a cult or a religious order.
There is nothing special about any of this; in fact, it seems unfortunate that this level of community does not already exist at every parish. But this is the age of do-it-yourself, and if you can DIY a plumbing repair or a gourmet meal, you can also create your own community. Reach out; take risks; be the first one to make contact. Use virtual community, such as social media, to find people who might be interested, but take connections offline as soon as possible. Check out different local parishes within easy driving distance, especially at daily Masses, and look for others with children. Make phone calls, ask questions, push yourself just a little. Be willing to attend events that seem slightly too far away or slightly out of your comfort zone; you never know who else just like you will make the stretch, and also be there.
I believe our children desperately need Catholic community, and for most of us, the parish will not adequately, or appropriately, supply it. Our children need to pray with other children, to celebrate the liturgical year with more than just their immediate family; they need to see our practices and values normalized outside the home. But in some ways, as the world continues on its frightening trajectory downward, it is just as important – and sometimes more difficult – for our children to play soccer and visit the zoo and eat birthday cupcakes with other children who share their values and their lifestyle. Every gathering doesn’t have to have a devotional or liturgical agenda. Our children mostly need a secure and happy place to be themselves, without having to worry about hiding or compromising their faith – and we parents do, too.
My children are all still little. I do not know if, in the end, what we are doing will be enough. I do not know how any of our children will turn out. But I do firmly believe that, in a time when both the world and the institutional Church seem to be spinning out of control, doing our best to shore up a little corner of sanity and safety, to create a community that preserves and celebrates the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, is one of the most important things we can do to give our children a fighting chance.
Alexandria Chiasson McCormick is a second-generation homeschooler and a graduate of Christendom College and Wilmington University. She lives in the Philadelphia metro area with her husband and their four young sons.