In the cold air of the November night, with the fire burning bright, the anticipation was palpable. The parishioners from St. Mary’s of Piscataway in Clinton gathered behind the Parish Hall to put an end to almost thirty years of sacrifice. The fire was lit and the makeshift stage was set. Rev. Tim Baer, pastor of St. Mary’s, addressed the bundled crowd, holding up a piece of paper signifying a zero balance on the $2.5 million dollar loan taken out to build the “new” and larger church on the grounds. “This began as a labor of love for Monsignor Repetti and Father Nagle almost thirty years ago. Tonight, on the vigil of the Feast of Christ the King, we burn the mortgage. Thank you to all who responded so generously to help us to get to this point and to those who continue to support St. Mary’s.”
And with that, the paper was dropped into the fire to much clapping and cheering.
Paying off the loan to build the Main Church at the parish meets the first material objective of the parish’s pastoral plan, which began in January 2012 and extends through July of 2015. Each year of the plan involves both a spiritual objective--facilitated by the newly established Parish Committee on the New Evangelization--and a material objective--facilitated by a fundraising campaign called “A Living Sacrifice.” The plan aims to celebrate the parish’s history, while also preparing for its future. The first year, now complete with The Feast of Christ the King, focused on the parishioners’ individual relationship with God and on burning the mortgage. Next year, the goal is to build up the parish community in this Year of Faith and to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Main Church. In 2014, the parish will focus on evangelization and celebrating the 110th Anniversary of the historic Our Lady’s Chapel, built in 1904. The plan culminates on July 5, 2015 with a celebration of the 375th Anniversary of Father Andrew White’s Baptism of Chief Chitomachen and 150 members of the Piscataway Indian Tribe. These were the first converts to Catholicism in the original 13 colonies. St. Mary’s, known as the Piscataway Church in early historic records, was founded as a missionary parish to the Piscataway Indians. It was the fourth parish founded in the Archdiocese of Washington and the first parish to be named St. Mary in the archdiocese. To this day, Our Lady’s Chapel has the original font, pews and altar rails.
The parish’s rich history provides the content of two new additions to the Main Church, blessed in a ceremony following a recent parish Mass. The first is a Pastor’s Wall commemorating every pastor since Father Andrew White—both missionary and diocesan-- as well as every priest and deacon who has served the parish. The interactive wall contains a frame for each priest with photos and biographical information, tracking their entire vocational life. Each frame is meant to be taken down off the wall to read and examine. On the back of each frame is a picture of the pope (or popes) who were on the Chair of Peter at the time that priest was stationed at St. Mary's of Piscataway. “This feature connects the priest to the universal Church, and gives us a glimpse into the world of popes, hopefully inspiring parishioners to learn more about these amazing men of God that were given care over the whole flock as Vicars of Christ,” said Bill Keimig, the parish’s Director of Religious Education and chair of the parish’s Historical Committee.
Also included are coins, mostly from the Vatican, from every 25 years spanning 1634 to the present. With the coins is a description of the events for that 25 year period, stressing the parish’s own history, but also placing it in the context of events in Maryland, the nation, the world, and the universal Church.
Four shadow boxes containing the photos, names, and service dates of St. Mary's 16 parochial vicars, four assisting priests, and four deacons through the years were also installed and blessed. The display is interspersed with antique holy cards on the priesthood, and several devotional items.
On the opposite side of the vestibule, a large display case of artifacts has been erected. Central to the display is a paired reliquary containing relics from St. Jerome and St. Ignatius of Loyola. These relics are surrounded by a spear and arrow points from the Piscataway Indians, a missionary-style vestment from the 1780s, and Roman Missals from each of the five centuries since St. Mary’s has been established. Old Maryland cedar trees were used to make the bookstands on which each Missal rests. Also on display is an antique wooden image of Our Lady of Guadalupe; the primary Marian icon of the Americas. A 19th-century priestly stole and a gravestone from the parish’s earliest known cemetery are also included.
Both displays are in the vestibule of the Main Church for all parishioners to see as they enter for Mass. “In working on this project to honor our parish's long history, I found myself deeply moved, sometimes to tears, as our research uncovered the extent of the sacrifices that allow the Catholic faith to take root in Maryland, persist here, and eventually thrive,” said Keimig. “These new walls in our church were built to honor those extraordinary sacrifices, and to invite the current generation of parishioners to consider what it means to be an American Catholic, to value their faith beyond all else, and to pass on that heritage intact and further enriched.”
The historical information was gathered by Keimig and Deacon Steve McKimmie. Both displays were built by parishioners Jim Underwood, Lou Rizzo and Dave Clink. “The display represents every century the Church has been in existence,” said Clink. “From Father White forward, our history is on display. Personally, it was great to be a part of that history and a motivation to make sure that the Maryland history is represented.”
“What a great weekend for our parish. It really brings home for our folks the part that we have played, and will continue to play, in the history of the Church in the United States,” said Father Baer. “At the level of the universal Church, it’s a great kickoff to the Year of Faith and our efforts in the New Evangelization.”