Breaking up with a woman he thought he would marry led John Ondrey to form a Catholic softball league that grew far beyond what he had imagined.
In 2015, after ending the relationship, he began to think of ways to meet people who shared his Catholic faith. One evening during Lent, he was attending a Bible study at St. Paul’s Cathedral in St. Paul with a group of young adults downstairs in Hayden Hall. Toward the end of the rally, he used a simple question to guide his next move.
“I just wanted to play softball” that summer, recalls Ondrey, 39, who belongs to St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony. “So at the end of the Bible study, I stood up and asked everyone, ‘Does anyone want to play softball?’ … A number of people raised their hands, and I pulled out a piece of paper and got their email addresses. And, I thought, ‘That was so easy. We just had a full crew – a mixed crew – and I only had to ask once.
The following day, at an event called Cathedral Sports Night, Ondrey extended the same invitation, this time with his identical twin brother, James. Again, a bunch of hands went up. In just two nights, they had recruited enough players to form two mixed teams.
They joined a league in Roseville in 2015 with those two teams and added players steadily over the next four years. Then in 2019 they formed their own league and named it Catholic Softball Group. They also formed a management team, including people like Peter Shutte, their classmate at Fridley’s Totino-Grace High School who started playing in 2016.
This year there are 16 teams and 192 players, representing 63 parishes, with leagues in the summer and fall. This year’s summer league, which features 16 games from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every Thursday until mid-July, filled up quickly. John and James had to turn 74 people away because they didn’t have enough space on the four courts at Pioneer Park in Little Canada.
Although the main draw is softball, the group is much more than that, the two brothers pointed out. CSG offers service projects like food wrapping at Feed My Starving Children, social gatherings, as well as spiritual events like masses, prayer gatherings, and retreats. The full range of activities attracts – and retains – Catholic young adults who seek connections with other like-minded young adults.
MaryPat Thune is in her freshman year at CSG. His involvement began at events that took place during the winter months, before softball began. She heard about the group after seeing a woman wearing a Catholic Softball Group sweatshirt. This led her to a Google search and a very enthusiastic decision to join after visiting the band’s website, catholicsoftball.com.
“I just started going to events, and here we are,” said Thune, 25, who belongs to St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park and plays on a team called the 3:16ers (a scriptural reference to John 3:16). “God changed my life in the best way. I found the best community in the whole world and I am very grateful for it.
Along with picking up a bat and a glove, Thune, who played softball in high school, carries a camera. She takes pictures weekly at games and works with the group’s head of photography, Gina Hansen of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, who has taken pictures for the past three seasons and also played for two seasons. . After only a few months of participation, Thune describes the group as “absolutely magnificent”.
For some, it’s much more than that. Justine and Chip Reisman met on the field at CSG in 2020 and struck up a friendship that led to their marriage on September 25, 2021. After their wedding ceremony at St. Rose of Lima in Roseville, they traveled to Pioneer Park for some Photos. The fields were already part of their romantic history, as they also took engagement photos there. They are among five married couples who have met at CSG, with the league also boasting four currently engaged couples.
Recently, the Reismans’ connection to CSG entered the second generation with the birth of their first child, CJ, on June 13. But that didn’t stop them from playing diamonds. Just three days later, the couple donned their jerseys and brought CJ to Pioneer Park for a night of softball interspersed with showing off their newborn baby. He was probably the youngest fan present.
At this event, that means something. Among the four adjoining fields with a shelter in the middle where a potluck is served, the sound of children playing and babies crying can be heard throughout the evening. Some are children of players, with the Ondrey brothers pointing out that the league is open to singles and married couples. The only requirement to become a member is to be 18 years or older.
Players don’t have to be Catholic, although most of them are. But, make no mistake about it, faith and faith-based fellowship are at the center of all league activity, on and off the field. It’s been that way from the start, and that’s why the league formed in the first place, the Ondrey brothers said.
“We want to have real, authentic relationships with each other and to come closer to him (Christ) through this group,” said James, who, like his brother, is also a parishioner at St. Charles. “I think that’s why people come. It brings us hope. … We hang out with other Catholics and try to become the people God calls us to be.
The league even attracts people who don’t play softball. Katie Hines from St. Pius X in White Bear Lake comes faithfully every week to cheer on the players and chat with them during breaks in the action. Like many others, she also comes to non-softball events and has found a place to deepen her faith and friendships.
“I can’t even fully express how much CSG and this community mean to me,” said Hines, 28, who started attending CSG games last fall and has played in every softball event. this year since the season opened on April 28. “It was a huge blessing when I came across this community.
She discovered it last year when a friend joined the fall league.
“I came to check it out and fell in love with the league, the (softball) nights and the people, basically the first night,” she said. “Since then, I have been part of it. It has had a huge impact on my life to be part of this incredible community that is here for the same reasons. They are here for the shared love of softball and the shared love of faith and God.
Among the league regulars is Father Andrew Zipp, 29, who was ordained in 2019 and serves in St. Vincent de Paul, Thune Parish. It’s his second year in the league, and his dad, Scott Zipp, played in the fall league last year and will likely play again this fall. Scott had hoped to play this summer, but the player limit was reached before he could sign up.
“It’s great, it’s great fun – a great time to kick back, relax, be competitive with a group of great young adults,” said father Zipp, who showed off punching skills during a recent game Thursday night. “It’s a great group of people, and I find so much joy in being here with all of them.”
At the moment, Father Zipp is the only priest playing regularly at CSG, but he hopes that will change.
“I’ve invited some priest brothers to join us,” he noted, “and I think I have a few who are going to join this upcoming fall league, so I’m excited.”
But, with more recruiting of new players, there is a downside.
“The problem we have is that we keep telling our friends, and now it’s really hard to get on the list because we can’t fit everyone,” said Leah Balster, 27. , from St. Helena to Minneapolis, who started playing last summer.
Registration has become a real headache. James Ondrey said registration for the upcoming fall season, which begins in August, opened June 8. Within seven days, 196 people had signed up, leading the Ondrey brothers and other league organizers to consider the possibility of expanding the league.
“It’s growing like crazy,” said Shutte, 40, of Immaculate Conception in Columbia Heights, the current league manager who met his now-fiancée, Sarah Thelen of St. Peter in North St. Paul, in 2019 at CSG. “We are trying to find more fields. We are trying to find ways to involve more people. I hope we can organize a men’s league this fall, which is our plan. »
He added: “It was a great experience for a lot of people. Were happy. … We want to do the maximum for as many people as possible. We want to develop it (league) as best we can.
For the Ondreys, this means continuing to follow the promptings of the Lord.
“God continues to bless him,” John Ondrey said. “We didn’t consider this when we started, but God kept blessing him and kept saying, ‘Keep growing, keep going. “”
The league will have a playoff in July, then take a short break before the start of the fall league. During the opening evening of August 4, Bishop Bernard Hebda will be present and will offer an opening prayer and a blessing. The Ondreys also invited him to throw a ceremonial first pitch. It’s a great way to start something that has become “a kind of ministry”, James Ondrey said.
“We encourage each other to follow him (Christ) a little closer and to do his will,” he said. “So if we can get a little closer to him through this group, then I think we’ve done our job. I’m just honored…to be a part of it. It’s a privilege to hold this leadership position. .
He added: “This is where God has placed us, and we are going to make the most of it. And we’re going to try to do whatever God calls us to do, and use it for His glory.
Photos by Dave Hrbacek
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