St. John the Baptist Church, tucked away at 168 Chestnut St., is perhaps the most vibrant parish in the Diocese of Buffalo.

“You’ll see a lot unique stuff at St. John’s you don’t see at other parishes,” said Lorene Hanley Duquin, Director of Parish Life. “I tell people that Lockport is the best kept secret in Western New York. Far and away, the Lockport parishes are the most active and the most energetic, the most creative and the most supportive.”

The secret is out, however. St. John the Baptist is featured in the Western New York Catholic this month.

“It’s a great parish. It really is,” said Duquin. “The people at St. John’s, the people of all of Lockport, are extremely supportive of the church. They are very creative in terms of coming up with ideas of things to do. It’s just an amazing place.”

Duquin knows the diocese. The author of several books, she worked at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Buffalo and was connected with all the parishes through the Come Home program.

The Rev. Joseph C. Gatto, who came to St. John’s three years ago, credits Msgr. Don Wangler and Sister Helen Buscarino for building the foundation.

“They created a parish that is not focused inward. It focuses outward. We built upon that,” Gatto said. “I have a very confident staff. I have very capable people I work with... I have always been convinced that church is not just going to church and putting in an envelope on Sunday...It’s a full, active membership. The Catholic Church has a great deal to offer.”

The parish offers fun things like a street dance, lawn fete and bazaars. More important it offers about 30 programs ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to Youth Ministries.

The Outreach Program, which is completely volunteer except for director Jim Haid, is one of strongest in the area. Among other things, St. John’s feeds 12,000 people a month. Sally Sayward, who is recognized as one of the most creative directors of religious education, started a summer program that is being copied by other churches.

Gatto does not confine his ministry to faithful Catholic, but reaches out to people who are alienated by the church; the angry, the bitter, the homeless and those who have had difficulty with the church.

Before being assigned by Bishop Mansell to St. John, the Dunkirk native worked at St. Leo The Great in Amherst, was the assistant vocation director, assistant director of the College Program, earned his doctorate in Rome, was on the faculty at Christ the King and the director of the Office of Worship.

“This was a very strong parish,” said Gatto who reshuffled a bit and got young people involved a lot.

“We have young people doing all kinds of things and that’s one of the celebrations here at the parish. The response has been incredibly positive.”

St. John’s has about 2,400 families and is growing. It registers two or three new families a week. Candidates for Eagle Scout have refurbished an outreach room, built the food panty and set up a children’s clothing center.

There is a strong connection to DeSales Catholic School and there are common programs with the four neighboring Catholic churches. The parish raised $25,000 for Hurricane Katrina relief.

DeSales, once closed, now has 570 students. “There’s no better success story in the diocese,” Gatto said. “It’s amazing and I’m just basically riding the wave because we have so many wonderful things going on.”

Gatto wants to prepare for the day, and the future, when there are going to be fewer priests and mergers of more parishes.

“I have never been more happy or excited about being a pastor than I am right now,” Gatto said. “I never thought it could be like this.”

Contact Bill Wolcott at (716) 439-9222, Ext. 6246.

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