In just the past couple of weeks, St. Mary's parish in Crescent has already connected nearly a quarter of its parishioners to a personalized smart phone app.

St. Mary's is the first parish in the Albany Diocese to offer the "myParish" app. Parish leaders say it will bring the community into the 21st century and make electronic communications even more convenient than texting, emailing and web posts.

"You have immediate connection," said Rev. Joseph Cebula, pastor and dean of the Saratoga County deanery. "It's much more easy to navigate [than the parish's website]. Not everybody's going to church, and they need to know what's going on" at St. Mary's.

The app, developed by Diocesan Publications - a company St. Mary's also uses for its bulletins and website - has many interesting features. By downloading the app and tapping a button on their smart phones, parishioners can access online giving, Mass times, homilies, parish information, Scripture readings, church calendars they can sync to their personal calendars, messaging, news, bulletins, prayers, confession guides and reminders, and more.

Father Cebula likes the confession feature's examination of conscience - he encourages parishioners to bring their phones to the sacrament of reconciliation to help them remember the prayers - and thinks it could be useful for the faith formation program. "We're hoping we'll build upon this with our youth," he noted. "If we need to contact them, it's another opportunity."

Faith formation leaders want parents to download the app to help with scheduling, and they want to find creative ways for youth to use it, especially with readings and prayers.

Stephanie Nolet, the parish associate for administration, received training to update the app on a web-based platform. She loves the app's messaging feature and the MassMode feature, which sends reminders to users to silence their phones when they'd be heading into Mass.

Parish leaders like being able to message parishioners about office closings, faith formation cancellations or holy day Mass schedules. "This is one more avenue to communicate with the parish and to make sure that we are reaching everyone," Mrs. Nolet said. "The parishioners who have been here for seven or eight decades are very pleased with the [paper] bulletin and wouldn't want it any other way. But this is the way [many] people are being reached now."

The parish of 1,300 households spends about $200 each time it mails parishioners newsletters, pastoral council reports, Bishop's Appeal information or tax documents. Using the app may reduce mailings in the future.

"Who knows what the next big thing is," Father Cebula added. "Everything we're doing could be obsolete in two years. Jesus did what He could do in His way, in His time. If Jesus [were] here, He'd probably be walking around with a smart phone in His pocket."

Father Cebula is big on cell phone use in church. He says smart phones can be used for following along with readings if there aren't enough missals or for rereading an enlightening homily. Once, during a homily, he asked parishioners to take out their phones and watch a certain video together. "Half the people are taking their phones out [in church] for positive reasons," he asserted.

The myParish app has been installed 15,600 times nationwide. St. Mary's started looking into it in late November and launched it at the end of January; it costs $50 a month in hosting fees.

Father Cebula tells skeptics, "If I can [use] it, anyone can."