DONNA PHIPPS AND CAROL PRESCOTT evangelize at Albany International Airport. (Kathleen Lamanna photo)
DONNA PHIPPS AND CAROL PRESCOTT evangelize at Albany International Airport. (Kathleen Lamanna photo)
Every other week, near the base of the escalator across from baggage claim at Albany International Airport, two women stand with felt "tongues of fire" on their heads behind a small tray table. A life-sized, painted cutout of St. Paul is set up nearby, holding a sign that reads, "St. Paul Street Evangelization."

The women don't approach travelers and other passersby at the airport, but they eagerly speak with those who approach them. Strangers come to the table with curiosity and questions, and sometimes with requests for prayer.

Donna Phipps, a parishioner of St. Augustine's Church in Troy, and Carol Prescott, who attends Transfiguration in Speigletown/Schaghticoke, are part of the St. Paul Street Evangelization effort.

St. Paul Street Evangelization is a not-for-profit Catholic evangelization group based in Bloomington, Ind. Created in 2012, its goal is for members to provide Catholic resources to the public without being confrontational.

The local chapter is comprised of 25 to 30 Catholics, mostly from the Troy/Cohoes area. Members also hail from Albany, Clifton Park, Round Lake and Schenectady. They communicate via an email chain, setting up times to meet and hit the streets to evangelize.

Mrs. Phipps leads the chapter, taking on the financial responsibility and organizing volunteers to share the Gospel and their faith with anyone willing to engage in conversation.

Q&A people
The local team told The Evangelist that they are often in the position of being Catholic "myth-busters." People approach them with questions about saints, the Church's stance on certain issues or the pope's role in leading the Church.

The street evangelizers carry Bibles, pamphlets, bookmarks, sacred medals and other tokens to give out.

Their main handout, though, is paper fish.

The fish are cut out of colorful card stock by volunteers. A Bible verse is printed on one side, with the group's website listed on the other. An orange string with three beads is tied to the end of each fish.

"Orange is to represent the Holy Spirit," Mrs. Phipps explained. "The three beads are for the Holy Trinity."

The most recognizable feature of the evangelizers is the felt flames perched atop each of their heads -- a nod to the Bible's description of the Holy Spirit descending on the Apostles at Pentecost "as tongues of fire."

When The Evangelist went to the airport to speak with the St. Paul Street Evangelization members, the yellow and orange flames were bobby-pinned in place, making flames appear to almost float above their heads, suspended on thin wire.

The tongues of fire are quite a conversation-starter, Mrs. Phipps and Ms. Prescott said.

God bless
Although they aren't allowed to approach people in the Albany Airport, per the request of airport officials, out on the street members chat with people walking by.

"We're not pushy," Mrs. Phipps noted. If a traveler isn't up for a conversation, an evangelizer just says, "OK; God bless you," and moves on.

St. Paul Street Evangelization officially began a chapter in the Albany Diocese in 2014, but participants didn't start going out on the street until 2015. An online session covered how to approach people and where members were allowed to go, though Mrs. Phipps said practice is the best teacher.

"The first time we went out, our knees were knocking" from nerves, she recalled.

Members steeled themselves for the possibility that they'd encounter negativity, but they say they have mostly been met with support and welcome.

When they aren't at the airport, the street evangelizers go to bus stops, community events or festivals in and around Troy.

Ms. Prescott said a large part of the ministry is simply listening and praying with the people who come over to them. Most of the strangers who engage with them, she said, are Catholics.

Prayers for passersby
"So, what is the secret?" a passerby at the airport asked Ms. Prescott on a recent afternoon, prompted by one of the group's signs, which reads, "What is the truth about the Catholic Church?"

The traveler was a Catholic and, due to the ambiguity of the sign, wasn't sure if the women supported or disapproved of the Church. Mrs. Phipps suggested that the ambiguity of the sign is a way to spark conversation. For many questions about the faith, her lifelong experience as a practicing Catholic provides the answers.

Another passerby at the airport asked for prayers for his disabled wife, whose flight was scheduled to arrive shortly. The St. Paul evangelizers promptly wrote her name in their prayer book. Prayer requests are sent out to several groups to make sure the person in need receives a good number of prayers.

Mrs. Phipps believes a big part of the street ministry is taking risks.

Laughing, she recalled a time when the evangelizers were standing near a bus stop in Troy and encountered many interested commuters: "We had people coming across lanes [in cars], rolling down their windows and asking for rosaries," like a Catholic version of a fast-food drive-through.

Free gifts
The group distributes rosaries and medals from parishes, though members are always looking for more donations. Mrs. Phipps purchases Bibles and other materials to hand out; at the airport, their small table was piled with holy cards, explanations of the Mass and pamphlets on how to pray a novena. The evangelizers themselves donate as much as they can to the effort, as well.

Like the Church's first evangelizers, the volunteers can't accept donations when they're out evangelizing, just as they aren't allowed to go out without at least one partner.

Both Mrs. Phipps and Ms. Prescott said their families are supportive of their evangelization work. Mrs. Phipps' husband is also patient with the piles of paper fish that sometimes overwhelm the couple's living room; he even works on them himself to make sure they're ready to be given out.

Ms. Prescott lives with her son. She laughed, shaking the flame perched on her head, as she said he's used to her quirks -- including her determination to evangelize the world.

(For more information, to donate or to volunteer, contact Donna Phipps at 518-326-4292, email or visit