By Joshua Benton
PARK CITY, Utah – If an Italian Olympic skier wanted to observe Ash Wednesday this week, chances are he did it with a little help from some folks from the Dallas area.
Eighteen North Texas Catholics have traveled to Park City to help the town’s one small parish deal with the onslaught of Catholic visitors.
“We knew they’d need some help and wanted to do what we could,” said Paul LeBon of Highland Village, one of the group’s leaders.
Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long been dominant, is home to only 100,000 Catholics. But many of the countries that sent athletes to the Park City Olympic skiing venues, such as France and Italy, are heavily Catholic.
“We want to let people know that we’re available if they need us,” said Father Rick Sherman, associate pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption in Park City. “We’re a very visible church on a main road, so we have people just wandering in, too.”
In anticipation of added demand, the parish altered its usual Ash Wednesday schedule to allow for services every half-hour through much of the day.
The North Texans, all members of St. Ann Catholic Parish in Coppell, helped with the distribution. They also have publicized the church’s existence among visitors by wearing vests advertising it in highly populated areas. “We’re not proselytizing; we just want people to know it’s available for them,” Mr. LeBon said.
He thought of the idea last summer while visiting Park City on vacation.
“I realized they’d need some volunteers to help out, and I thought we could do it,” he said Wednesday. “There’s been a steady stream of people coming in.”
About half the volunteers are teenagers. Father Sherman said he hopes the Coppell teens can meet with Park City teens to discuss St. Ann’s mission work in Mexico.
“The Dallas kids have been a really significant presence here,” Father Sherman said.
He estimated that a third of the people they served on Ash Wednesday were Olympic-related visitors.
St. Mary’s is a small but growing parish with about 1,000 families. St. Ann in Coppell, in contrast, has about 6,000 families.
When they’re not helping out, the Coppell volunteers have been the beneficiaries of a few people looking to get rid of event tickets.
“We’re wearing T-shirts with our home church’s name on it, and people have been surprised to see us,” Mr. LeBon said. “People ask, ‘You came here for the Olympics?’ We say, ‘No, we came here to serve this church.’ “