Al McCauley (right) started the “Fish on Fridays” video formation series during the pandemic and enlisted former student Emily Chmielewski to help with the technical aspects. (Submitted photo)

A year into Al McCauley’s tenure as director of adult faith formation at St Anthony on the Lake Catholic Church, the pandemic hit.

As the long weeks of quarantine went on, hinting it would be months or longer before in-person formation could take place again, he knew he had to act. For years, McCauley had contemplated the idea of a podcast, and occasionally mentioned it to friends, former students and colleagues from his 24 years at Pius XI High school teaching theology and history.

“Teaching is my passion,” he said. “But my faith is everything, and I know I’m right where God wants me to be when I’m blending the two.”

McCauley has always tried to make the Catholic faith accessible so people don’t feel intimidated or distant from it. His hope is to spread the truth that God is everywhere, right where we can see him.

“We need that grace, especially with everything going on today,” he said. “But if you told me a year ago the way I would be spreading that message would be through a web series, I would have asked you what a web series is.”

He went to the director of communications at St. Anthony on the Lake and began to brainstorm ways they could effectively reach out to parishioners and help them continue to grow closer to God during a time they would need to draw on every ounce of their faith to get through.

He began very simply, by making three- to five-minute videos he began to call “Fish on Fridays,” where he shared his knowledge of different aspects of the Catholic faith. He addressed topics like the rosary, the life of a saint or a church teaching.

He released them on Fridays, in lieu of the Fish Frys that were unable to be held.

He was shocked when parishioners watched the videos on Facebook and YouTube, and asked for more. He saw where the series could go and knew his rudimentary skills weren’t going to be enough to get it there; so he began to reach out to former students and colleagues he’d spoken with about his idea years before.

A conversation he had with Emily Chmielewski, a 2016 graduate of Pius XI, came to mind. On a pre-COVID trip home, Chmielewski, a student teacher now based in Minnesota, said if he ever decided to go through with a podcast or series, she’d love to put her technology skills to use and help. When he reached out, she was thrilled to jump in and take over polishing the videos to help them look more professional. Chmielewski does the editing, adds text and helps him turn his ideas into a more concrete form.

“My background is in music,” Chmielewski said. “So this project has allowed me to have an artistic outlet during a time when the arts virtually shut down. I am so thankful for that.”

In addition to Chmielewski, 2002 Pius XI graduate Augie Haas, now a professional musician, helped him create and produce a theme song.

“His band made a demo of Ode to Joy, a good Catholic song and turned it into a jazzy little 45 second jingle,” McCauley said. “It blew me away.

Andy Bernier, a former Pius XI art teacher, came up with the logo. McCauley said that as the series took form because of his old connections from Pius XI, he felt a strong sense of community, even though they had not been together at the school in years. He said, “You really see what Catholic schools and Catholic education builds. It’s a timeless bond that keeps us together.”

As the series began to grow, McCauley said he was shocked to see it catch on outside the parish. Small groups have asked to use the videos for small-group settings on Zoom, and parishes have reached out and asked to use them for formation during this time when, for many, learning has come to a halt.

“It’s been so cool to see how far the small hope I had for evangelization is spreading,” McCauley said. “People are learning and growing closer to their faith because a handful of us offered up our time.”

All of the work McCauley and Chmielewski do is voluntary, and the web series makes no money. They do it solely because they believe in the Gospel and want to see it spread to the world. They both said they love their faith, and their drive in life is to help others feel close to it, as well.

Over the past year, many people have sent emails and made comments about how wonderful it is to look forward to a burst of Friday formation. When McCauley and his wife visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, he filmed himself talking about it and called it an “On the Road” episode. A few homebound people emailed, saying they couldn’t make the trip but were so glad to go on a virtual journey with him.

“People feel isolated,” McCauley said. “None of us could ever have imagined that this is what formation would look like in 2020, but we’re here and we have to do the best we can. I never thought this was where it was going to go. It’s totally intimidating, and rewarding, and a chance to share my faith and be myself, but I’m so pleased, and it’s all God. ”