As An Advocate for Youth, Young Adults, and Pro-Life
By Joyce Bibey
WHEELING—Jessica Petter hopes to spark the fire within the souls of the faithful across the state of West Virginia as the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s new assistant director of evangelization and catechesis.
She is eager to fan the flame lighting the “fire to lead people to Christ.”
Petter comes to the Mountain State from Arkansas, where she was the youth ministry director for St. Stephen Catholic Church in Bentonville, and before that at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Rogers, Arkansas. She earned her degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Petter grew up in a Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a charming resort town in the Ozark Mountain region. She was raised Catholic, but admits there was a time in her life, when her faith was more of a stale obligation than a joyful part of how she identified herself.
“I get it,” Petter said. “I understand how we can get stuck and not grow in faith. It took me years to realize that God loves me for me. He loves me no matter what, even when I think I’m just a hot mess.”
Two things helped re- ignite her faith. The first was attending a Steubenville Youth Conference as a young adult and the second was meeting Betsy McNeil.
The Steubenville Youth Conferences are held across North America through Franciscan University of Steubenville to energize young adults and adults about God and the Church.
“I came away with having that ‘Mountain Top’ experience,” she said. “It’s an incredible ah-ha moment when they build you up and tell you, ‘God loves you for you.’ I didn’t want that feeling to end and I knew I needed someone to walk down the mountain with me. Ultimately that is Jesus.”
She said she found someone else to walk alongside her too and that is Betsy McNeil. “I remember when I first went back to church and this sweet lady welcomed me with a loving smile and after Mass walked me into the Adoration Chapel, and said, ‘Don’t come out until the Lord directs you towards what you need to do,’” she said. “I was thinking, ‘what? She wants me to just be in here silent.’ I did and, in the silence, I had an internal conversation with God.”
She said McNeil continues to be a great guide and keeps her accountable.
“She wants the best for me and reminds me that Jesus loves us in our brokenness no matter how great or trivial that is,” Petter said.
That is exactly what Petter hopes to be for the people of West Virginia, “a spiritual guide on their faith journey and reminder that we don’t have to be perfect to be loved by God.”
When the pandemic kept everyone from going to Mass and gathering with her youth ministry groups, Petter and her colleagues turned to the Mary Undoer of Knots Novena (www.praymorenovenas.com/mary-undoer-knots-novena).
“Throughout those nine days I felt like Mary was telling me to ‘Prepare for a new adventure,’” she said. “I wasn’t seeking anything new at the time. I just wanted to get through these uncertain days, but I was open to that thought that kept repeating in my mind. So, I started purging things I didn’t need anymore; I reorganized closets and cabinets; and began a new exercise routine. However, months and months later the thought still kept coming back.”
When October came, Petters continued to be alerted by job opportunities around the mid-west, but when she learned of the position in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in January, she was eager to return to the region close to her Franciscan alma mater.
She will be working with youth ministry programming, young adult ministry, and pro-life activities.
“Jessica is a dynamic, informed, and talented Catholic evangelist, who has extensive experience in parish youth ministry and pro-life activities,” said Daniel Maul, director of the office of evangelization and catechesis for the diocese. “I’m absolutely certain she’ll be a real asset for this diocese, because of her deep faith, her tremendous passion for serving God’s people, her wealth of knowledge of Church teaching, and her excellent communication skills, in addition to her engaging personality.”
Petter said she enriches her faith by learning and leaning on the saints and amazing Catholics whether from history or present day.
“As I contemplated this job, I kept thinking about St. Catherine of Siena’s words, ‘Be who God meant for you to be and you will set the world on fire,” Petter said. “I’m excited and ready for this journey all over West Virginia. I’m happy to call it home.”