CRYSTAL LAKE – Christians at churches across the area marked the start of Lent by publicly acknowledging their faith signified in ashes.
At the end of Monsignor Daniel Hermes' Ash Wednesday homily, he held up a bright yellow sign to his St. Thomas the Apostle parishioners that read "Text STCL to 84576."
He was encouraging the congregation to register for Flocknote, a messaging system that keeps church members informed through text messaging and email. He used words like QR Code and e-newsletter, jokingly admitting to the church, "I don't know what any of this means."
But many at St. Thomas the Apostle are very familiar with Flocknote, which the church introduced last year on Ash Wednesday. More than 1,000 people registered for the messaging system on the first day, and an additional 2,000 have signed up since, creating a level of engagement the church hasn't seen in years, according to JoEllen Gregus, director of adult education.
"It's really changed the way we do things," she sad. "I think it's really changed the way we communicate with folks, and we're constantly striving to have it be not just information, but actually directing them toward a relationship with Jesus Christ."
It was important for the church to reach its parishioners in a way that fits into their lives, Gregus said. As text messaging and email increased in popularity, communication with people that way became a must.
Along with continued engagement with its regular parishioners, St. Thomas the Apostle has used Flocknote to retain people who came to church on the major holidays but are less likely to attend every Sunday. Ash Wednesday was a good day to promote the program because of the high volume of church goers and the relative light liturgy compared to Christmas or Easter, Gregus said.
And church attendance has risen since last Ash Wednesday, although it's unclear exactly what role Flocknote has played, Hermes said.
"Our attendance is, I would say, steadily rising, but there are probably a lot of factors," he said "[Promoting Flocknote] is good on those really big days where people come who are Catholics, but maybe aren't practicing so much. And that was really our target audience."
Flocknote has allowed St. Thomas the Apostle the ability to quickly send event details, short bible verses, and even video of each Sunday's homily to those registered. But it's during times when information needs to be spread quickly that the services is most useful.
"When we had our recent polar vortexes, I could send out a text saying 'Hey, school is closed today. The Parish Center is closed today,' " said Allyson Svigelj, St. Thomas The Apostle promotions coordinator. "It's short, sweet, and to the point."
Svigelj said spreading the church's message digitally has been an important step in reaching a wider audience.
"It's a really nice evangelization tool," she said. "If I go to Sunday mass and the homily was awesome, and it comes [to my phone] on Monday, then I can send it on to someone else. More people are able to view those homilies and get engaged in the church."