Don’t let their present-day last names fool you. The sources don’t come any better than Ted Andrews and Frances Shady regarding the Polish roots of Catatonk’s St. Francis of Assisi Church.
Andrews’ original family name was Andrejczyk, and Shady’s maiden name was Slozenski. Both 86-year-olds are charter parishioners of St. Francis, which was due to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its church dedication with a dinner gathering on Nov. 4 at Candor Fire Hall.
The Andrejczyks and Slozenskis were among numerous Polish immigrants who settled in Tioga County in the early 1900s to pursue farming. According to Andrews, these families gradually spread north from Owego to the county’s center. Armed with a strong faith carried over from their native land, “they wanted a Polish church,” he said.
Masses in Catatonk began in 1929, and construction on the church began in 1930. With a cornerstone containing the inscription “St. Franciszka 1930,” the church building opened on Nov. 1, 1931. The parish acquired its name because its priest at the time, Father Callistus Szpara, belonged to the Franciscan order.
Andrews recalled that during these early stages of parish history, his first Communion had to be moved to St. John the Evangelist in nearby Newark Valley.
“I can remember that it was a very cold day. We had the Communion and confirmation at that time in Newark Valley because the furnace wasn’t installed yet (at St. Francis),” he said.
Not only did the furnace eventually get working, but the parish also exuded a different kind of warmth, as Glenna Wickline found out some years later. Andrews and his wife, Helen, became proxy godparents for her son, Joseph, who was baptized in April 1957.
“I had only lived here six weeks and didn’t know anybody,” Wickline said, explaining that she had just moved to the area due to her husband Wade’s employment with IBM.
Andrews said this occurrence exemplified the welcoming spirit at St. Francis.
“Everyone was still invited. Just because the Polish people built it didn’t mean that only Polish went there,” he remarked.
That baptism was arranged by Father Alexander Stec, who ministered the St. Francis flock from 1938 to 1959 and was the longest-tenured priest in parish history.
From the beginning, St. Francis has never had a resident priest, sharing a pastor with St. John the Evangelist during much of that time. Portions of the Mass were regularly said in Polish throughout the church’s early decades.
“It was kind of strange at first. I didn’t have any Polish background,” Wickline said.
Shady added that although she spoke English in school, Polish was the main language at home and in church.
Christina Homrighouse noted that her grandfather, Iggy Cyganovich — also a member of St. Francis — is among 11 Polish siblings — all of whom are still living — who reside and attend Catholic churches in the Tioga area. On top of that, Andrews is Homrighouse’s uncle and Shady is a distant relative as well.
“It’s my family, literally and figuratively,” Homrighouse said of the St. Francis community.
These days, many of the original farming families have blended in with parishioners who work and/or reside in nearby towns.
“Now it’s for anyone and everyone,” Andrews said.
In 2003 St. Francis and St. John the Evangelist became part of the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes, which also include St. James, Waverly; St. Pius X, Van Etten; St. Margaret Mary, Apalachin; and St. Patrick, Owego. Pastor for the six churches is Father William Moorby, and parochial vicars are Fathers William Coffas and Boniface Ewah.
St. Francis currently celebrates one Sunday Mass per week, at 9:30 a.m. A special celebration also was held on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, Oct. 4, with a Mass followed by a luncheon. Noting the observance of this great saint, an item in the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick bulletin stated, “We are blessed to have a church that bears his name and as such our entire parish claims St. Francis as one of our patron saints.”
Homrighouse, who serves as chair of the six-church Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parish pastoral council, said that over the past five years or so she’s seen many more new faces at St. Francis, which she attributes to the merging process and rearrangement of all the churches’ Mass times. Yet in many instances, she added, “for the past 38 years (her age) the same people have sat in the same places. You know when somebody leaves (the parish) — you know where they’re going and why they’re going, and you miss them because they sat in the same place every week.”
Volunteers have dedicated themselves to keeping the small church vibrant. For instance, Wickline has served for many years as St. Francis’ music director and social-justice committee member. Meanwhile, Shady said she has been involved in everything over the years, such as volunteering for dinners, cleaning the church and washing liturgical linens.
“I’m still doing linens,” she noted.
Through all of its changes, Shady has enjoyed one constant about St. Francis going back to her childhood.
“It just seems like home when you go to church,” she said.