Catholic Funerals: Honoring Life, Celebrating Faith

John McQueen:  [0:00] Welcome to Anderson‑McQueen’s radio show, Undertakings. I’m John McQueen, president and owner of Anderson‑McQueen Funeral Homes. As always, on this show, we undertake those subjects

Monsignor Gibbons

Monsignor Robert Gibbons, Pastor
St. Paul’s Catholic Church
St. Petersburg, FL

that you want to know about.

[0:13] Remember, if there’s a specific topic you would like us to talk about, or if you have a question you would like us to ask one of our upcoming guests, please email them to We will always do our best to include everyone’s request, if at all possible.

[0:32] Our topic today is “Catholic Funerals: Honoring Life, Celebrating Faith.” Our special guest today is Monsignor Robert Gibbons with St. Paul’s Catholic Church, who will help us in undertaking this worthy subject.

[0:48] Welcome Monsignor Gibbons.

Monsignor Robert Gibbons:  [0:50] Thank you, John. It’s very good to be here.

John:  [0:52] Great, we appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to join us and to share with our listeners some important aspects within the Catholic faith as it relates to the rite of Christian burials.

[1:05] Before we get started, though, please share with us a little background on Saint Paul’s Catholic Church, which has been a mainstay here in our community forever as well as a little background on yourself. I know you’re a native to the area, too, I believe. Please, share with our listeners.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [1:24] Saint Paul’s was founded as its own independent parish in 1929 on the north side of Downtown Saint Petersburg. We’re 18 blocks north of Central Avenue in the neighborhood that’s called Euclid Saint Paul’s.

[1:49] About a year after the church was founded as its own separate parish, it opened a school, Saint Paul’s Catholic School. That school was the first Catholic school in Pinellas County. That school has been a significant factor in the community as well, as the church has been.

Saint Paul's Catholic Church

St. Paul’s Catholic Church
“The Early Days”

[2:10] We are an active, vibrant parish, if I do say so myself. We have benefited a lot from the renaissance of Downtown Saint Petersburg. Our area attracts a lot of young families now. Just a good place to be.

[2:36] Personally I was born and raised in Tampa, and I was ordained a priest in 1981. Most of my priestly ministry has been here in Pinellas County. I started out at Saint Raphael in Saint Petersburg. I also served at Saint Catherine in Largo, Saint John on St Pete Beach. The last 20 years I have been here at Saint Paul’s as pastor.

John:  [3:04] Has it been 20 years already?

Monsignor Gibbons:  [3:06] 20 years this year.

John:  [3:10] I know Saint Paul’s, both the school and the church, have done great things here in our community. I know a lot of that has been under your leadership.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [3:17] Thank you very much. I inherited a great tradition there. There’s always been a lot of good people there.

John:  [3:25] It’s, again, led from the top, and sometimes really the top. [laughs] In order to lay a foundation for our talk today, would you mind sharing with us about the Catholic belief regarding death? That may help some of our listeners to better understand the Catholic faith and what we believe once a death occurs.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [3:51] In our Catholic tradition we have a very, very strong belief in what we might call the afterlife, that the Lord created us not solely and not simply to live on this Earth but to have an eternal destiny, eternal life. We hope we share that life in union with Him in Heaven, in paradise forever.

[4:18] We would see the moment of death as, as we say in the funeral liturgy, not the end. Life is not ended, but it’s changed. The moment of death is a moment of transition from this Earthly life into the eternal life that, as I said, we hope to share with God in Heaven.

[4:45] The moment of death is a time where we look back on what we have experienced in life, giving thanks for God’s blessings bestowed on us in this life, but also looking forward to the afterlife and eternal life with God.

John:  [5:05] Great. I know, because many of our listeners may be Catholic or may not be Catholic, I always like to give them that overview of each faith…when we have someone in each faith believes and the background behind it.

[5:26] Shifting more to the actual funeral itself, I know most Catholic funerals seem to consist of three main aspects, the vigil, the funeral liturgy, and the committal. Could you share with us a little bit about each and maybe the significance each aspect plays in the Catholic funeral process?

Monsignor Gibbons:  [5:46] The first thing you mentioned there, the vigil, that is often observed on the day before or the evening before the actual funeral mass itself, and the purpose of the vigil is to gather people together in a context of prayer, and also a context of socializing and expressing sympathy.

[6:18] People come together with the family of the deceased to pray, to express their sympathy to the survivors, to perhaps reflect upon and share stories about the person who’s died.

[6:41] Sometimes eulogies are given in this context of the vigil, which is sometimes also called a wake or a visitation, and it’s just like the first chapter leading up to the funeral mass, which would be the next day. The funeral mass, the funeral liturgy itself, would be the central focus of our funeral rights.

[7:10] That involves usually bringing the body to church, greeting the body, blessing the body with the holy water, covering the casket with the pall, bringing the body forward to the altar. We have the liturgy of the Word, the readings from Scripture.

[7:32] The priest would give a homily reflecting upon what has happened here in the light of our faith, and then we have the celebration of the Eucharist, which is food for the…the Lord through the Eucharist gives us food for our own journey of life, and we’re also anticipating the Great Banquet of Heaven.

[7:58] The celebration of the Eucharistic meal is a foretaste and promise, we say, of the eternal banquet in Heaven, and then we have what’s called the Final Commendation, where we send the body from the church on its way to its burial.

[8:13] That’s the third aspect of the funeral, the Rite of Committal at the cemetery, where we have the final prayers and the burial of the body.

John:  [8:24] Great. Thank you for those insights, Monsignor. As you know, like you, I’m a native here in the area and have grown up in the family funeral business, so I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of serving many families there at St. Paul’s as well as many of the other churches.

[8:44] As a kid growing up and starting to work around the funeral home, I remember that the night of the vigil, it seemed like often times we would have a Rosary service, and then, I want to say probably 20…

[8:59] I lose track of time, 25 years ago maybe or so, it seemed like that shifted from the Rosary service to the Wake service, and now I see it seems like we’re shifting back to the Rosary again.

[9:17] First, can you tell, maybe for our listeners the difference between a rosary service and a wake service, and then also maybe what’s brought about some of the shift?

Monsignor Gibbons:  [9:31] The Rosary service, or the Rosary, involves the three principal prayers, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be to the Father, so it’s a series of prayers prayed in what we call decades.

[9:54] So an Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, Glory Be, and usually a rosary consists of 5 decades, so 5 sets of those prayers. With each of the decades of the prayers, we reflect upon a particular mystery of the life of Christ.

[10:16] For example, the resurrection, the ascension, the descent of the Holy Spirit, et cetera. The vigil service, or the wake service as you call it, is built more around an explicit reading of scriptures followed by petitions, prayers of intercession, prayers of petition, and closing with a final prayer.

[10:45] It’s a more explicitly scriptural service, and that change came about because at the time of the liturgical renewal in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, we were encouraged in our prayer gatherings to have a more explicit and more complete use of scripture.

[11:07] Basically, the thing was to bring more explicitly the reading of scripture into the prayer service. Oftentimes what I’ll do is kind of a combination of the two at a vigil service. I will have the opening prayer of reading from scripture, a little homily or sermon, petitions, and close up with doing one decade of the Rosary.

[11:37] Oftentimes because we live in a city where at a wake you might have some of the people Catholics, some of the people not Catholics, if they’re not familiar with the Rosary, rather than do the whole Rosary, just do one decade, so more people can feel included and part of it.

John:  [12:00] I appreciate you explaining that, because we get asked that a lot from families, about the night before, should I do the Rosary? Should I do a wake? What’s the difference? At least as it was explained to me many years ago by one of the funeral directors here was sort of what you just touched on.

[12:21] Was that because we do have a diverse community and you’ll have individuals from all different faiths, if you’re not Catholic, you don’t necessarily know the rosary. Whereas with the wake, you can kind of follow along with the little wake books and things.

[12:35] Hopefully, that will be helpful in explaining some of that to some of our listeners. Also, as we both know, cremation has become more and more popular over the years. For years, the Catholic Church was opposed to cremation.

[12:49] But in the last couple of decades, at least as I recall, it has become more and more what I would say is cremation friendly. Would you mind sharing what those Catholics who maybe are thinking about cremation, the order of the Church’s preference as it relates to cremation?

Monsignor Gibbons:  [13:09] This issue ties in with our belief, as expressed in the great Christian creed, the Apostles’ Creed, we believe in the resurrection of the body. Our understanding is that somehow, some way, the Lord is going to raise up to eternal life not just our soul, but also our body.

[13:31] We are going to be completely saved. No part of us unsaved. We’re going to be completely saved by God. Somehow, just as Christ was raised with a glorified body, we share in that resurrection. So, somehow our body is going to be raised up in glory. That’s a mystery. We don’t understand how that’s going to happen.

[13:54] So, it was always tremendous reverence given, in the Christian tradition, to the body of the deceased. It wasn’t just discarded. It was treated with great reverence, and buried in anticipation of that raising of the body on the last day.

[14:23] For a long time, it was seen that to cremate the body, to burn the body, was a way of saying, “I don’t believe the resurrection of the body.”

[14:34] Whereas, as it’s become more and more common, cremation, the Church came to see, it’s not necessarily that people are denying the resurrection of the body by having their cremation. Because, the Lord is all powerful, and he’s able to put a body back together whether it’s burned or not burned.

[14:59] So, we came to say that while we prefer that the body be buried, if for whatever reason ‑‑ the family is free to choose this ‑‑ they wish to have a cremation, that there still be great reverence shown for the cremains, for the ashes. And that they not just be discarded willy‑nilly, but that they properly disposed of.

John:  [15:32] Kind of a follow up to that is, if we had a family that was here making arrangements and obviously wanted to go forward with cremation, but they were torn between do I…

[15:46] Because some of our listeners, or even some families that may not listen to the show but come in for cremation, sometimes don’t realize they can still have a traditional funeral before the cremation.

[15:58] Would you say that the preference of the Church would be that first bring the remains, the actual casketed remains to church for a traditional type mass?

[16:10] Then if that was not what the family wanted to do, then do like a memorial type mass. Then obviously, prefer not to do just nothing. So, is it still in that order, or does it really…?

Monsignor Gibbons:  [16:24] I think it’s really, really important ‑‑ and I always try to explain this to families ‑‑ to realize that it’s not simply one or the other. You can have sort of a combination.

[16:36] Like you say, you can have the body brought to the church in a casket for mass, and then afterwards the body be cremated. If the family is desiring cremation, that’s really the ideal, to bring the body first to church.

[16:58] Because, there’s something very beautiful and very moving about the body being brought to church. There’s beautiful symbolism in it. It gives you a beautiful focus for the liturgy. So much happens around the casket during the liturgy. It’s sprinkled with the holy water.

[17:26] It’s covered with a beautiful cloth pall that reminds us of our baptismal dignity and our baptismal garment. It’s carried by people in, carried by people out. There’s something beautiful about the procession in, the recessional with the body.

[17:43] So, that’s ideal. But, of course, if they decide, “No, no, no. I’d rather have cremation before the funeral mass,” we now allow that the cremains be brought in. They’re shown great reverence during the ceremony as well. So, there’s a lot of options that the families have in this regard.

John:  [18:06] We always tell them the best thing to do is, we sort of give them at outline, as you’ve kind of laid out for us. But we always tell them the best thing to do is, obviously, if you have some sort of special request to parish priest, make sure…

[18:23] I’m kind of diverting here for a moment, but I remember years ago it was sort of more left up to each parish priest to decide whether or not they would allow the cremated remains into church. But now it’s seems as though pretty much all the parishes say that you can bring cremated remains to church.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [18:46] Absolutely.

John:  [18:47] Great. Hopefully, that will be helpful to some. You touched on it just now, also, as you were talking about symbolism and things like that. The Catholic Church, like so many other religions, utilizes symbols as part of their ritual, both in our regular everyday mass as well as the funeral mass.

[19:10] Some of the more common ones, like the pall, and holy water, and the Crucifix, and the Paschal candle, and burning of incense. I know that with the pall, I know you mentioned it reminds us of our baptismal and the garments that we wore and things.

[19:29] Also, as a young man going through funeral school, at least what they say in funeral school is that also the pall is placed over the casket, because in the eyes of God we’re all created equal. So that way, whether you have the wealthy family that has the solid bronze casket…

Monsignor Gibbons:  [19:47] I never thought of it that way.

John:  [19:48] Or the pauper that has the cloth covered casket, in no way is anyone distinguished differently within the eyes of God by the Church.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [19:58] I had never heard that, but that’s beautiful.

John:  [20:00] At least, that’s what I’ve always heard. But could you maybe elaborate a little bit on some of those symbols that are often used at the funeral mass and what they mean?

[20:10] Because many times, we get that not only in the Catholic faith, but in other faiths also, that want to know, well, we’re going to do this, this, and this. But why do we do that? So, maybe you could elaborate on that.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [20:22] Right. Let me give an analogy here.

[20:25] In the education field, we’ve come more and more to realize that different people learn differently. Some people are visual learners. Some people learn by what they hear, through their ears.

[20:44] Some people learn by watching things on a TV screen. Other people learn it be reading it out of a book. Some people learn through music. A lot of different ways people learn.

[21:02] The Church’s liturgy has always realized that, at least subconsciously. That we present the truths of the faith in a lot of different ways. Through words, such as the Scriptures and prayers, through music, through visual symbols. Sometimes the visual symbols speak to our heart even more than words can.

[21:34] Just the fact a casket being draped in a beautiful cloth and shown great reverence, that’s conveying the truth that this person is important. This person has great dignity.

[21:47] You made a great point when you said, even if a poor person comes in, they’re getting the same cloth put over them as a billionaire. That symbol conveys a certain truth.

[22:01] Some of the symbols and rituals that we use in the funeral mass, the body is greeted at the door of the church, to remind us of when we were first brought into the church, we were greeted at the door at our baptism.

[22:20] The casket is sprinkled with the holy water, to remind us that that was the start of our Christian life, was in baptism.

[22:29] Then the casket is clothed with the pall or the cloth ‑‑ usually, it’s kind of elaborate cloth, beautiful cloth ‑‑ to remind us of our baptismal garment that we were clothed with. And that we’re all called to be, St. Paul says, clothed in Christ, that Christ envelopes us in his love and in his person.

[22:54] Then the body is brought forth down the aisle to the altar. There, at the foot of the altar, stands the Paschal candle or the Easter candle, which is the symbol of Christ, our light. Christ is their leader, and he’s there to show them the way. That’s sort of what the Paschal candle symbolizes.

[23:23] We use incense around the casket, especially at the end of the liturgy, to symbolize our prayers for this person who has died rising up to God. Those are some of the principal symbols that we use in the liturgy.

John:  [23:43] Being Catholic myself, I even have a better understanding of it now, myself. Thank you.

[23:50] One thing that I meant to mention to you that I noticed, and St. Paul’s does a great job of this. In just the funerals in general nowadays and in life in general, people want to be much more a part of the experience, whether that’s your child’s birthday party or whether it’s a funeral or what.

[24:18] I’ve noticed at St. Paul’s especially, it seems that St. Paul’s has sort of embraced that concept, too. Because again, I remember when I was a teenager working funerals. We would come over, and our staff 90 percent of the time would pall bear the casket. We also would put the pall on.

[24:38] We would also take the casket down. We really did everything. The family just sort of followed along. Nowadays, I know being there for masses that you all actually get the family to take more part in the actual service itself now, with placement of the pall and bringing the gifts.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [24:58] Yeah, bringing the gifts, doing the readings.

John:  [25:01] Exactly.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [25:02] Family members or friends doing the readings. This is all tied back to the Liturgical Reform instituted by the Second Vatican Council of the Church.

[25:14] One of the main goals of that Liturgical Reform was the active participation of people in the liturgy. Because before that, it was basically the priest and the altar boys did everything.

John:  [25:29] Exactly, exactly. I like it. I think it’s great that we include the family a little more in that process.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [25:36] Eucharistic ministers is another way that they assist during the liturgy.

John:  [25:40] Sure. Shifting gears just a little bit, I wanted to share with you some frequently asked questions that we get from families that we serve, and get your advice on how best we can maybe address some of their concerns or questions.

[25:56] As we both know, Calvary Catholic Cemetery here in our diocese is by far one of the most beautiful and well maintained cemeteries within the diocese, in my opinion at least. However, Catholic families will occasionally ask us if that is their only option, because they are Catholic.

[26:18] Or they’ll say, “Is it OK if I bury some place else because I have family members at another cemetery? But I understand that it’s supposed to be consecrated graves or ground space.”

[26:31] Obviously, we tell them that they can go to other cemeteries, but if you could maybe elaborate a little bit on that for us, about the consecrating grounds and things like that.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [26:41] Oh, yeah. I’m glad you are complimentary of the Calvary Catholic Cemetery, because they do a really good job keeping the place up.

John:  [26:51] They do. Terry Young and all of them.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [26:53] It’s a beautiful place. But, a family can choose any cemetery. At the Rite of Committal, when the body is buried, the casket or the ashes are buried in the cemetery, prayers are said there and the ground is blessed. Every place becomes consecrated ground, so that shouldn’t be a concern.

John:  [27:20] Thank you. That’s what we tell families, but it’s always nice to be able to have them hear it direct from you. [laughs] Also, a little side note, as I tell families, and as you know, we own a cemetery ourselves.

[27:35] Ours is a very small, little, historic cemetery here in town. I always tell families, “Well, if you’re not going to our cemetery, then the first cemetery I would recommend is Cavalry.”

[27:46] They always say, “I thought that was a Catholic cemetery.” As I remind them, you don’t have to be Catholic to be buried at Calvary Catholic Cemetery. Terry Young and all his team, they all do a great job.

[28:00] Another question we get oftentimes is, why does the Church state the cremated remains should not be scattered, divided, or taken home to be kept on the mantle? Say, they should be kept intact and buried somewhere.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [28:16] This ties in back to what I was saying about our fervent belief in the resurrection of the body. And that our body after death, whether it be intact or in the form of ashes, is still something very important and something sacred. It should be shown great reverence.

[28:44] We shouldn’t do anything that in any way is implying we don’t believe that ultimately we will share in Christ’s resurrection completely. Body, soul, everything about us will raised to the glory of Heaven.

[29:03] The concern would be that by scattering, by dividing up, by putting it on the mantle where if something happened to you and somebody comes in and says, “Oh, what’s this? We’ll throw it out.” It’s just to make sure that the proper reverence is shown to those mortal remains.

John:  [29:26] Great. Another question, and this one we get asked quite often. That is, if my loved one who has passed away was Catholic, but either I’m not Catholic or maybe I was raised Catholic because my parents were Catholic, but I’ve since left the Church and I’m not really Catholic now, so I’m not sure if I want to have a Catholic funeral.

[29:50] What would be some advice you’d maybe give to them about that?

Monsignor Gibbons:  [29:53] There’s a lot of things I would say. First of all I’d say, the Catholic funeral ritual is very, very beautiful. So even if you’re not regularly going to Catholic church, I don’t think you should deprive yourself of the beauty of that liturgy. It’s just something very, very, very beautiful.

[30:23] The other thing that I would say is that I think you should keep in mind what the person might have wanted. The person who died, what would they have wanted? Because I think we have to respect their wishes.

[30:38] Also, they might have many friends or they might belong, they might have been active in the parish community. Their Catholic friends and their Catholic community would really appreciate being able to gather in the context of a Catholic service to show honor and reverence to that person, do justice to their memory.

[31:04] Then the other thing is, maybe a lot of the people that are coming might not be Catholic, might not familiar with it. But, it’s an opportunity to give them the experience of the Catholic funeral.

[31:20] A lot of times, this happens pretty often to me, non‑Catholics who have come to a Catholic funeral will come after and say, “That was really, really, really beautiful. I’m really glad I came.”

[31:35] We always try to make everybody feel as welcome as possible. When I sub at a funeral, I always give instructions. “Please be seated,” or, “Please stand,” or, “Now at this point you may kneel or be seated.” I try to make everybody feel as comfortable and as welcome as possible.

[31:59] I explain to them about coming to Communion. If you’re not a Catholic, if you’d like to come forward and receive a special blessing, indicate that by having your hands crossed across your chest. Or you may simply remain in the pew during Communion time.

[32:13] Just so people know what they should do or what they shouldn’t do. I try to make everybody feel comfortable.

John:  [32:21] And you do a great job of that. I will say, just from personal experience, not just with St. Paul’s but elsewhere too, the Catholic funeral mass is definitely a beautiful experience.

[32:33] In many ways, I relate it to, I don’t know if pomp and circumstance is the right wording for that, but much like a wedding though, too. With the reception and all the ceremony around it. It is a beautiful ceremony. That’s for sure.

[32:54] Also, I get some questions sometimes about, I was considering donating my body to medical science. Is that something that the Catholic Church would permit? Again, I tell families, usually, I believe that it is. But, I don’t know.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [33:10] Again, I would say that we certainly would permit that. But at the same time, the family should just make sure at the same time they reaffirm, “Yes, we believe that God, somehow, is able to raise up this body to eternal life.” God’s capable of doing anything.

John:  [33:35] Sure. Much like with cremation, I will also throw in the funeral director’s standpoint of it, is that just remind people that even though you may be donating your body to medical science, that still does not prohibit you from having any sort of a service…

Monsignor Gibbons:  [33:53] Absolutely, right.

John:  [33:54] Whether that be with the body present or without the body present. Then, probably one last final question for you that I get asked, because you actually touched on a couple of my other ones.

[34:05] That is, I get questions from families about, “We’re all from out of town. Mom was the only one left living in St. P. So, we want to come to town. We really want to do everything in one day. Can we have the viewing, the service, and everything in the church?”

[34:22] I know, at least as a kid growing up, it seemed like we usually didn’t open the casket at church. We just had the more formal ceremony.

[34:33] But I even know at St. Paul’s, a few times I’ve been there, we’ve had visitations there. Is that something that’s changing within the Church, or just within your parish?

Monsignor Gibbons:  [34:42] Sometimes people have the visitation even the night before in the church, or the visitation for an hour or so before the mass itself in the church. During the visitation, of course, the casket can be opened if the family wishes that.

John:  [35:01] Great. That would be helpful to maybe other families. Well Monsignor, I truly want to thank you for providing our listeners with some fantastic insight into the rite of the Christian burials for Catholics.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [35:13] May I just add one thing?

John:  [35:14] Sure.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [35:16] One thing a family might not realize, but it’s a tremendous help as their planning the funeral is that what we do in our parish is ‑‑ and most Catholic parishes would do this ‑‑ they will meet with the family. A member of our staff will meet with the family prior to the service, a day or two, three before the service.

[35:42] The family will be involved in choosing the music, choosing the Scripture readings, helping plan the prayers. The family can have a lot of input and involvement in exactly how the funeral mass is going to be. So, it’s not like they’ll just arrive there and it will all be a surprise to them.

[36:06] They’ll be able to plan everything, choose the readings that are especially meaningful to them, the songs especially meaningful to them, choose which family members they’d like to have do the readings, and all. They have a lot of say‑so in the planning of the service.

John:  [36:26] That’s great. I appreciate you bringing that up. I meant to ask you about that. I think it’s Sister Catherine, is it?

Monsignor Gibbons:  [36:33] Sister Kathleen.

John:  [36:35] Kathleen at St. Paul’s.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [36:37] She spends a lot of time with the families, getting them ready for the funeral.

John:  [36:42] In all honesty, that’s really a big help for us as funeral directors, too. Because again, we kind of plan out the course of events, then make sure we get everything approved by you all. First, if those times are available.

[36:56] But I know over the years I’ve had many families ask me, “Well now, what about this special reading? Or what about this special music?” It makes it nice that I can defer them over to you all.

Monsignor Gibbons:  [37:06] We’re happy to help.

John:  [37:08] I’m sure it makes it much better for you and them, so everybody’s on the same page.

[37:13] Once again, thank you for taking time out of your schedule. I also want to thank our listeners for listening to Anderson‑McQueen’s radio show Undertakings.

[37:23] Never miss an episode by subscribing to Undertakings at the iTunes store. It’s easy, and it’s free. In addition to our podcast, you can also download our free funeral app at iTunes or at the app store from your iPhone.

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[37:57] I’m John McQueen with Anderson‑McQueen Funeral Homes, and I thank you for listening to Undertakings.


To learn more about St. Paul’s Catholic Church, click here visit their website.

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