Diane Monti-Catania Interview:
This is file #9, cycle 3. This is November 15, 2017. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Diane Monti-Catania who is the current minister of the Congregational Church is Salisbury Connecticut. She is going to talk about her ministry and her career path and anything else she wants to talk about. First we will start with the genealogical information.
JM:What is your name?
Diane:My name is Diane Monti-Catania.
Diane:I was born November 7, 1957,
Diane: Stamford, Ct.
JM:Your parents’ names, please.
Diane:My father’s name was Salvatore Carmen Monti. My mother’s name was Hilda Frances Maggot.
JM:Do you have siblings?
Diane:Yes I have three sisters: Sally Proto which lives in Chester, Maryland, Andrea Lavery who lives in West Hartford, Ct. and Priscilla Pellenburg who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
JM:What was your seminary training?
Diane:I attended Yale Divinity School from 2002 until 2006.
JM:When did you come to this area?
Diane:I came to the Salisbury Congregational Church January 1, 2011.
JM:Your husband came first?
Diane:My husband had been hired by Sharon Hospital as a general surgeon in Dec. of 2008. So he had been renting an apartment here on Main Street in the old MacDonald house. (91 Main St. Salisbury, Ed.). I came when our youngest Andrew graduated from high school and went off to Villanova College. I joined Joe here in Salisbury at the end of 2010.
JM:This is your second career.
JM:Tell me about your first career. What did you do?
Diane:My first career was in what would be called social work. My area of expertise was violence against women which had become quite timely again. I started out as an advocate, a counselor at a battered women’s shelter. Through the years I had administrative positions. Then I worked as a consultant to other professional organizations that were developing their own response to battered women. I did a lot of writing and a lot of training and a lot of advocacies.
JM:A good background for becoming a minister. Why did you choose to become a minister?
Diane:I chose to become a minister after having a health crisis in 2000. I had surgery for a brain tumor that was benign but in my recovery I had to be quiet and still for almost a year. At the time I was running my own consulting business, and I had two small sons. To be told to be quiet for almost a year at 42 years old with all of that going on was not something that many people get an opportunity to do. In my period of being quiet I participated in a Bible study class at the church I was attending at the time because that was how far I could drive. I could do something for one hour. It was remarkable for me. I have been raised Catholic so I knew nothing of the Bible. This class was just enlightening. I loved it. I signed up for the next one, and the next one and the next on. I took them all through the year.
Then I decided that I would go back to school and get a degree so that I could teach Bible and religion and faith. My original goal was to teach it to young women as a way to empower them I had been working all these years with women who had no sense of self-esteem. . I thought if I can teach them that they are indeed beloved by God that would be a great place to start. That was my intent. I applied to Yale Divinity School and I was accepted as a Masters of Religion student with a concentration in women’s Studies. I was the only person in that program. It felt like it had been designed for me because it had my two passions in one place. I pursued that course of study for the first two years I was there working with some brilliant professors like Margaret Farley and Letty Russell. I had left the Catholic Church because I realized that my secret self and my secular self were completely divided in the church. I joined the Congregational Church.
During Christmastime of 2004 I was given an opportunity to preach. It was the day after Christmas and the pastor wanted the day of. The deacons said, “Well nobody will preach that day.” I said, “I’ll do it.” So I did. I preached on the text that talks about Mary holding all of the things she has witnessed in her heart. My sermon was built on following your heart. I was preaching to myself unknowingly. At the end of that experience, one of the elder women in the church came up to me and put her hands on my shoulders and she said, “You have a gift; you have to do this.” I don’t know. I don’t know. I was the reluctant prophet like Jonah. I spent the Christmas vacation in interviewing my family and friends about what kind of minister they thought I might be. I went back to school that January and switched into the ordination program. That is why it took me until 2006 to finish. I was ordained in the Litchfield South Association of the United Church of Christ in October of 2006.
JM:What a wonderful transition. You are using all the skills that you had in your previous career and using them now in this career.
Diane:Exactly. When I called my father to tell him that I had decided to be ordained in the United Church of Christ, as a life-long Catholic he was a little taken aback. He did not quite know what to say. He called me a couple of days later. He said, “You know I am thinking about this Diane, I realize that all your paths lead to this door.”
JM:What is you r mission statement for this church?
Diane:Our formal mission statement is “Created by God, Redeemed by Jesus Christ, supported by the Holy Spirit” Love God and your neighbor is in the preamble. What we work on and what every decision we try to make we look to is that we are to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as our self.
JM:That is hard to do.
Diane:It is hard to do but it is what we are called to do.
JM:What is the size of your congregation?
Diane:We have about 200 individuals. I have not broken it down by families. Different churches do it differently.
JM:Is your average Sunday attendance?
Diane:We have been averaging 100 people on a Sunday.
JM:You have some special programs as I understand it. “Peace though Understanding. “ What is that about?
Diane:Peace Through Understanding program was an initiative that I designed as part of my doctoral work. It was originally designed to teach the congregation and the community about other religions and other cultures, by using art, poetry and music as tools. We had a series of 5 events where we had a speaker who gave an overview of the topic. Then we had a concert of music from that religion or culture. I wrote booklets to go along with each of those that included art, and poetry from that. (They are stored in the Congregational Church box in the historian’s office.) We are continuing it this year. This year we made it a little bit different rather than doing a specific religion or culture, we are doing justice issues. We did 2 events on immigration which were very well received. In the spring we are doing an event on the environment. We actually are doing Islam again in February. We have a panel coming to talk about Muslim life particularly in the United States. A Sofi band from Boston is coming.
JM:You have another special program: “Called to Care.” What is that?
Diane: Yes, just since I saw you that is really flourishing. This is a new initiative what we just started where we are training volunteers to go out into the community to visit people. We are trying to spread compassion. We are trying to create a more caring community. We start by noticing people. We notice
who might need a touch, a visit, or a card. We are training people to act on that. We have just finished out first orientation before we had 11 volunteers sign up. They are ready to go. I hope that they will be the pioneers and that this will grow until it is something that the church is known for. That is my hope.
JM:It is a wonderful goal. This is a very caring community, but you can always use more of the caring and the loving and the nurturing. I think you said that Sarah Zarbock was one of your volunteers.
Diane:She initiated the program. It was her brain child.
JM:I got information from her on that. You have a Sunday school here.
Diane:Yes we have a vibrant Sunday school that has been led by Barbara Collins for almost 40 years.
JM:She has agreed to give me an oral history.
Diane:Oh great. I think you will enjoy that.
JM:What is the size of the Sunday school now?
Diane:I think we probably have about 35 children enrolled. Each week we vary in size from 5 to 15.
JM:What is the goal of the Sunday school?
Diane:the goal of the Sunday school is strictly to have the children develop a sense of church as a place that is filled with kind and compassionate people.
JM:Do your Sunday school children stay in church for part of the service? Do you do a children’s sermon?
Diane:Yes, the children stay for the Call to Worship, the opening prayer, the prayer of confession, assurance of pardon, reading of the Psalms, and a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. Then I gather them for the Children’s Message At the end of the Children’s Message, we pray together and then we day the Lord’s Prayer with the congregation and then they go off to Sunday school. The two parts of the service that they don’t experience is the sermon and the offering.
JM:When do you have your weekly service?
Diane:Sundays at 10:00. On the first Sunday of each month we celebrate Communion.
JM:What do you do for Outreach programs?
Diane:We have a very vibrant Christian Action Committee. They were here yesterday making stew to take down to a church in Torrington on Sunday where they will feed 100 community members in Torrington. We do three different sites for community dinners. We work with a church in Bridgeport, at the United Congregational Church. We go down there a couple of time a year. They have a weekly “Feel the Warmth” dinner program. They feed about 100 to 150 homeless individuals every Thursday
night. We also have the program in Torrington with the Center Church; this is a brand new effort for it, so we are supporting them in their monthly feeding program. We have collaborated recently with the Catholic Church in Canaan, St. Joseph’s. They are now affiliated our Catholic Church St. Mary’s here in Lakeville. They have a community dinner once a month I think on Wednesday night. So we will take responsibility for that once or twice a year. I am excited as I was just at their meeting the other day. They are going to host a community dinner here in the spring for all the customers of the Corner Food Pantry. (See file #13, cycle 2 Jean Gallup, File #19, cycle 2 Barbara Nicholls and file # 44, cycle 2 Sara Williams) We invite everyone who shops at the food pantry to come for a free dinner and all the volunteers from the food pantry too.
This year we are focusing on food and hunger. Each year they choose a different topic. But then as well they support Louise Lindenmyer’s work in Haiti with Hispaniola Health. They also support “Simply Smiles” which is an organization that does work out on the Cheyenne-Sioux River Reservation in South Dakota. We support them and we send volunteers out there during the summer. We have another program where we just give donations to Salisbury-Lakeville area organizations that are serving families: visiting nurses, daycare, Housatonic Service Bureau -all those.
JM:What about the church structure?
Diane:The Congregational Church which means that the congregation holds all the power. That is divided into committees to handle the different aspects of the business. The committees are staffed by the various staff in their area.
JM:How many Deacons do you have?
Diane: We have 12 deacons.
JM:How about Trustees?
Diane:We have 9 trustees.
JM:We have covered the Christian Action Committee. How many are on that committee?
Diane: I am not sure if it is 9 or 12.
JM:Religious Education would be your Sunday school?
Diane:Yes, Barbara Collins is in charge of that.
JM:The Church council- what do they do?
Diane:It is technically the governing board of the church. That is made up of the chairs of all the committees and 3 at large members and the officers of the church; the Moderator, the Treasurer, and the Clerk.
JM:Music would be Dr. Bowman? (See also Tape #118 Al Sly, organist, and tape #139A Mary Davidson, Bell choir)
JM:He is going to give me an interview the week after Thanksgiving. You have a Hospitality committee too?
JM:How many people on that one?
Diane:That committee has 9; they are responsible for providing an extravagant welcome to any ne who comes through the door.
JM:Do they also do the collations after funerals?
Diane:Yes they do coffee hour every Sunday, collations after funerals and they have been doing receptions after our music events.
JM:That is a lot of work.
Diane:It is a lot of work. All our committees do a lot of work. We are exploring along with other churches in the country the best way, the most efficient way for our work to be done because people get tired. With the committee structure you need a lot of bodies, you see how many committees we have and if everyone has 9 to 12 people on it, then you have to have that many people who actually show up who can do the work. So we are just beginning the process of exploring if there are other ways to do that.
JM:How about ushers?
Diane:We have ushers. Their job is to greet people at the front door on Sunday morning, give everyone a bulletin, and help people if they are visiting or new to find their way. They are sort of front and center.
JM:They are the face of the church to begin with.
Diane: Yes, I greet everyone at the front door.
JM:Oh do you?
Diane:I stand at the front door on Sunday mornings from 9:45 to 10:00. So I greet every person who comes in along with the ushers. That way I have contact with everyone so I can greet people who are visiting.
JM:How do the church leaders rotate? Do you stay as long as the congregation wishes you to or do you rotate every 2 or 3 years?
Diane:The officers of the church and the committee members all rotate. They have 3 years terms; some of the officers might just have 2 year terms. The committee members mostly have 3 year terms. I serve at the will of the congregation. At any time they could call a congregational meeting and vote to have me not be here.
JM:That is not going to happen.
Diane:We don’t have a formal renewal event. We do have a formal renewal event on the first Sunday of June every year. We reiterate our covenant with one another the whole congregation because we are a covenant based theology.
JM:Now you have been here for 6 years, have you seen changes over those 6 years, as far as this church is concerned?
Diane:Yes, I have noticed more families with young children coming to church. One of the big changes for our church is our bow to technology. For example we don’t do a printed newsletter any more. We do a weekly electronic newsletter because we realize that people’s attention span is such that if you only give them information once a month, they don’t retain it. The other change is, subtle but that I noticed is that are more women in leadership than there had been in the past. I don’t know if that is the times or if that is because of having a woman pastor.
JM:Is attendance regular?
Diane:Attendance is quite regular. The numbers are regular but the people are different. It is interesting because one of the facts that came up in my graduate studies was that people now a days consider themselves active church members if they attend between 20 and 25 time a year. Where people used to go to church every Sunday, now I think it was even lower, maybe 16 weeks out of the year. If you interview them, they would consider themselves an active member of the church. It is another change that we have had to adapt to because both in the Sunday school and in my preaching we can’t depend on consistence of week to week. If you come this week, you might not have heard what I said last week. I can’t build on that. Every week and Barbara and I have talked about this a lot. Every week we have to have something fresh and new that can stand independently.
JM:That is very hard.
Diane:It is different. It is a different way to do church. The majority of people both religiously and Biblically are illiterate. You can’t make reference as a preacher to something that you haven’t just read because people won’t know what you are talking about. You can’t just make a reference to John’s gospel because people won’t know how that is different from Matthew’s gospel. If is almost as if every Sunday we have to speak to those who are coming in to visit to see if this church is right for them. Hopefully there is enough in there for people to come every week to feel nourished. I use a restaurant analogy. I tell the staff we are like a restaurant. We have to know what we serve, and we have to consistently deliver the best possible meal every time somebody comes in the door because they may
only come once or they may come every week. They have to get the same quality every time they come in because that is what they are looking for. That is what they are expecting.
JM:That is a good challenge. That will keep you on your toes. Have you noticed any cultural changes?
Diane:We have had a large influx of Asian families recently. We have a group of Chinese-Christian women who meet regularly during the week. They do their own bible studies; they go to worship services during the week sometimes at other places. They are very devout. They come here because of the Sunday school; their children are all in Sunday school. They are seeking community. That has been new for us. We are learning.
JM:Learning is good. Is there anything that you would like to add to this interview before we close? Things I haven’t covered or things you want to express?
Diane:The only thing I want to add in the interest of history is that it is fascinating that this church, the Salisbury Congregational Church, has been here since 1740. I am only the 16th pastor in all of that time. I am the first woman pastor of this church. The important thing for people to realize is that the church endures. The community changes, the world changes, the minister changes but the need for a sacred space in the community never goes away.
JM:What a wonderful way to end the interview. Thank you so much.
Diane:You are welcome.
(For more information about this church see tape #100 Betty Haas, Tape #109 Norm Sills and file #66 Rev. Richard Taber. Richard Riefsnyder, Assistant Pastor of an earlier date, Dr. Jack Bowman, Minister of Music and Barbara Collins Superintendent of Sunday School are all interviews which will be done at a future date. Ed.)