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Brenda Pehle had six months under her belt as a pastoral associate at St. Joseph Church in Lebanon, Ill., when the parish community’s only priest was reassigned. She found herself in a leadership role because she was “compelled to do what I could do to get us through that priestless period.”

That was 1993. That year, Pehle assumed the duties of a parish life coordinator. Bishop Wilton Gregory, now archbishop in Atlanta, formally appointed her as a PLC in 1995. She was the first PLC in the Diocese of Belleville and among fewer than 300 PLCs nationwide—deacons, vowed religious and laypeople who run parishes without resident priests.

Because of Pehle’s gifts for ministry, and because of her leadership in a role that so few held when she began, Aquinas Institute of Theology has named her the 2007 recipient of the St. Catherine of Siena Excellence in Ministry Award.

The school will present her with the award during 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph Church on Sunday, May 27. A reception will follow.

When Pehle learned she had been named this year’s recipient, she said she had to stop herself from objecting. She had nominated someone else for the award and thought her choice was more deserving.

“That anecdote reveals the Brenda that we hear about from those who know her,” said Beth Moritz, director of institutional advance for Aquinas Institute. “Her humility and her caring for others are what make the word of God so real to people to whom she ministers.”

Pehle said whatever she is able to give to parishioners in this rural Illinois community is a reflection of what they give to her.

“It is a mutual respect,” Pehle said. “I draw strength from listening to them, knowing their personal struggles and seeing their faith through the challenges of aging, illness, family issues ….”

As parish life coordinator, Pehle runs every aspect of the parish minus the sacramental piece. She plans liturgies, prepares couples for marriage and new parents for baptism. She visits the sick and works with families of those who have died to prepare the funeral. She trains lectors, acolytes, and Eucharistic ministers. She oversees RCIA and the parish school of religion. She readies those who are about to be confirmed. She manages the parish’s outreach to the poor and leads its ecumenical participation in the community. She pays the bills, keeps the bishop abreast of business at the parish and above all, tends to the needs of parishioners.

In the early days of her role as parish life coordinator, she said she worried too much about the ever-present paperwork that came with administering the parish. Today, she sees her role as far more pastoral.

“We gather for morning prayer, and I hear folks say, ‘Did you hear so-and-so went in for tests …,’” she said. “The people within the community, out of concern and love for others, bring things to me that require a response. That is what speaks to me each day, and that is why I do not let the everyday administrative duties of parish life interfere with the pastoral side.”

When Pehle took this job, the word “call” felt awkward to her. She saw it as a term reserved for the ordained and vowed religious. But as her work continued at St. Joseph Church, she came to see herself as called to this ministry.
“This is a vocation,” she said, “without doubt.”

Aquinas Institute of Theology began the St. Catherine of Siena Excellence in Ministry Award in 2003 to call attention to what the Church can accomplish when it calls upon the gifts of all of its members. The award celebrates a lay person who possesses extraordinary gifts for ministry.

Pehle graduated from Aquinas Institute of Theology with a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies in 2006. Today, she is one of 10 parish life coordinators in the Diocese of Belleville and, according to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, one of about 565 in the United States.

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