The archdiocese's Office of Youth Ministry and Catholic Youth Organization recently honored four members of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland for the work they do within their church community. 

TJ (Tejiri) Ofugara: St. Timothy Award 

Juan Aznaran, Tejiri Ofugara, and Father Tony Krisak. (St. Rose of Lima photo: Jack McKinney)

When Tejiri Ofugara was in the first grade, he noticed the choir sitting separate from the rest of the congregation during Sunday Mass at his home parish of St. Rose of Lima.

“I always saw the choir singing on Sundays and I was curious why they were sitting separately,” Ofugara said.

Seeing the choir lead the congregation in worship, Ofugara joined the Children Love Christ Choir the following year at his parents’ persuasion. “They knew I loved to sing,” Ofugara said.

Throughout the next 11 years, Ofugara would practice and sing in various liturgical celebrations during the year, from the Children Love Christ Choir for elementary school-aged children to the Teens Love Christ Choir for high schoolers. When Ofugara reached the 11th grade, he started as an intern, assisting with the CLC and TLC choirs, attending practices and singing at Masses with the younger children. 

“It’s like being a teacher,” Ofugara said. “You have kids that will be perfect, stand up and sing, and then kids who struggle a bit with that. But you always have to remember, focus more on the kids that aren’t listening as much, help them out, and eventually you see them blossom into a whole new person by the end of the year.”

Ofugara, who has been a part of the St. Rose of Lima community for most of his life, said it is like a family. 

“When we go there, everyone is so friendly; we all know each other so well,” Ofugara said. “Most of us have been in the choir for years, so the bond has been formed.”

Ofugara attributes much of his love for music ministry to Jeannie Downey-Vanover, director of music ministry for youth at St. Rose of Lima, whom he said goes out of her way to help each of her students succeed. 

“Ms. Jeannie’s been leading the music ministry longer than I’ve been alive,” he said. “You will never hear anyone say anything bad about her. She makes you want to help and listen to her.” 

As Ofugara prepares to head off to college this fall, he said he will consider joining the choir at the University of Maryland in College Park, but that he will be back at St. Rose of Lima occasionally. 

“Being part of music ministry has helped me grow in my faith personally, because when you’re singing up there, you’re proclaiming the Word of God,” he said. “It’s a humbling experience.”

Jeannie Downey-Vanover: For God and Youth Award 

Juan Aznaran, Jeannie Downey-Vanover, and Father Tony Krisak. (St. Rose photo: Jack McKinney)

As Molly Herrera, youth minister at St. Rose of Lima, was presenting the OYM/CYO awards after Mass on June 2, she noted that two adults in the community also received awards. And as Herrera began to announce the recipient of the For God and Youth Award, she said, “For 24 years, this person has served St. Rose,” and Jeannie Downey-Vanover instantly knew it was her. 

“I could feel the kids looking at me, they were all smiling and trying not to giggle,” Vanover said.

Vanover is the director of music ministry for youth at St. Rose, where she directs the Celebration Choir, the Children Love Christ Choir, and the Teens Love Christ Choir, as well as helps the cantors at Mass. 

“It is really a formation experience,” she said. “They are learning to understand what it means to be a pastoral minister.”

Vanover, who has a doctorate in linguistics, serves as assistant head of the Upper School at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland, where she is also chair of world languages and teaches an advanced placement course in  Spanish literature. 

“Music is the universal language,” she said. “I've always seen that connection between what I do in my professional life and my ministerial life.”

For Vanover, the power of ministry to extend over an entire community is one thing that she especially loves about her work with children in music ministry. 

Seeing those youth “present at Mass and leading, really praying the music,” inspires her, she said. “We always talk about the text behind the music, and talk about why this piece might be pastorally relevant for the community.

“It is a way to engage young people, to empower them to make them feel like ‘I belong here.’ I think as human beings, that is what we are all looking for,” she continued.

Receiving the award, Vanover said, was “an affirmation that I’m doing what God has called me to do.” 

Over the past 24 years, Vanover has watched many children grow up through her program.

“One thing that hasn’t changed is their desire to serve and be a visible part of the community: to partake in the (Eucharist as the) source and summit of the Liturgy,” she said. “It is a wonderful witness to see the young people standing up there every week.”

As to St. Rose of Lima, Vanover said that the community is strong and the young people give her hope. 

“It’s a wonderful community. The young people are alive, which is such a hope in the time of 'nones,'” she said, noting the modern challenge of reaching young people who are not affiliated with any faith.

Vanover expressed joy over her ministry and said she takes it “one day at a time, one person at a time, always (with) great love.” 

Sherry Moitoza: Outstanding Adult Leadership Award

Juan Aznaran, Sherry Moitoza, and Father Tony Krisak. (St. Rose photo: Jack McKinney)

In a room of about 80 people, the song “Open my Eyes” by Jesse Manibusan begins to play in the background to lead the group in worship. The congregation, however, remains quiet because the majority of the room is using American Sign Language to sing, following along with a video projected on the wall.

“They sign the entire song. It’s just the most beautiful thing, for them to sing by signing -- quite a beautiful sight to see,” Sherry Moitoza said. 

Moitoza is the director of social concerns at St. Rose of Lima Parish where she, along with others, formed an Adaptive Religious Education program, bringing together teens and those with special needs for catechism classes and sacramental preparation. Moitoza was named the recipient of the archdiocese's OYM/CYO Outstanding Adult Leadership Award.

“We had an increased number of kids and young people who were coming to the church because they heard we had a few people who could prepare people with disabilities to receive the sacraments,” Moitoza said. “There was an influx of people who came and said they wanted to have their kids receive the sacraments.”

Reading about programs that provided options for catechizing members with special needs, Moitoza gathered several ministries within St. Rose of Lima to build the strong program that exists today. 

“There’s a great need in our church, which has a rich, deep, long history of working with people with disabilities...,” Moitoza said. “You can combine the two things you love, service and youth, and do this.”

Every two weeks during the school year, teens involved in youth ministry come together with the families of parishioners with disabilities for an evening of worship and classes. At the start of the hour, they gather with songs, often in sign language, and then break into groups of parents and youth.

“It’s a very comprehensive program,” Moitoza said. “We not only do something for students who need accommodations, but we also do something for the parents. At the same time the kids are being taught, we have a group for parents who are...receiving faith formation and coming together for community.” 

The program has benefited the whole parish, Moitoza said. 

“The two groups (Youth Ministry and Adaptive Religious Education) enhance each other,” Moitoza said. “We have several different ministries at St. Rose that are all working toward the same goal, but they look very different.”

And everyone’s faith is deepened, she says. 

“It goes back and forth,” Moitoza said. “Both people’s faith are being deepened because of this mentorship. They have totally transformed our parish. Flipped it upside down. Really taught us in so many ways of how we should be so accepting and welcoming and walking alongside people. Neat to see how these teens have made a difference.”

Check out our feature on Jason Lerner, Outstanding Catholic Youth award recipient from St. Rose of Lima Parish here