Why dwell needlessly on religious differences, when that energy can be put toward finding common bonds?
That’s the sentiment at several churches in Hammondsport, where the spirit of ecumenism is in a class by itself, said Sister of St. Joseph Anne Michelle McGill.
“This is probably about the most active ecumenical group I have ever been a part of. I find just great support among the ministers and the people,” stated Sister McGill, who serves as pastoral administrator at St. Gabriel’s Parish.
“We are a very unusual community to have this,” agreed Mary Ellen Peck, a St. Gabriel’s parishioner.
Ecumenism is at its peak in this Steuben County village during Lent, with numerous prayer gatherings and Bible-study classes scheduled. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 9, a weekly prayer service will be held on Wednesdays at noon, continuing a long-standing tradition. The event will rotate among Hammondsport-area churches, with each week’s principal speaker coming from a visiting church. For instance, Sister McGill will speak at St. James Episcopal Church for the opening service Feb. 9.
Remaining dates and locations are: Feb. 16, Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church; Feb. 23, St. Gabriel’s; March 2, Hammondsport United Methodist Church; March 9, St. Gabriel’s; and March 16, First Presbyterian Church of Hammondsport.
“The services are marvelous — getting together and hearing Lent being talked about by five ministers,” said Betty White, a St. Gabriel’s parishioner.
Another staple is the luncheon that follows each service — in fact, St. Gabriel’s has become renowned for its beef barbecue on one of its hosting days. Peck, who coordinates the St. Gabriel’s luncheons along with Lucy Perkins, said the barbecue was derived from a recipe she happened to stumble across.
“We tried it and all liked it, and it exploded,” she said with a laugh. “Everybody in town asks, ‘when are you going to have the beef barbecue?’ Now we add that to our summer festival.”
Along with the prayer service/luncheons, four Bible-study sessions will be offered by Father Sebastian Falcone, professor of biblical studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. The sessions run on Thursday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m., with the following dates, topics and locations:
* Feb. 10 — “Women Should Keep Quiet in Church — Really?” St. James Episcopal Church
* Feb. 17 — “Paul’s ‘Conversion’ En Route to Damascus,” St. Gabriel’s
* Feb. 24 — “Original Sin — What Does It Mean?” St. James Episcopal
* March 3 — “Jesus’ Eucharistic Words — Where Do We Find Them?” St. Gabriel’s
White said the discussions, which have been led by Father Falcone for several years, are highly educational. “I’m telling you, it’s the best thing going,” she said. “It isn’t just a small group that’s all one faith. It’s a diverse crowd.”
She further observed that several participants travel to the village’s Lenten events from neighboring communities, and that all are welcome. “I’m hoping people come down to Hammondsport and enjoy Lent,” she said.
The Lenten programs are among a number of ecumenical initiatives that take place in Hammondsport. In September 2004, a progressive dinner was staged by St. Gabriel’s and the Mennonite, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist churches, raising more than $1,500 for the American Red Cross. The churches also share responsibility for the local food pantry located at St. James Episcopal. Sister McGill added that church leaders convene for monthly meetings, and that at a January gathering, leaders agreed to organize an ecumenical supper to aid victims of the tsunami in Asia.
How is this unity achieved, when each faith varies in its beliefs and customs? “We always go back to Scripture for things. You just can’t deny the word of the Lord,” Sister McGill said.
She added that Hammondsport’s small-town atmosphere has helped further the churches’ reliance on each other. “It’s so neat. We pray together, but we also work together and we even play together,” Sister McGill remarked. “We do get along very well.”