Hammondsport church marks rebirth from fire's ashes - Catholic Courier

Hammondsport church marks rebirth from fire’s ashes

Exactly one century ago at this time, Hammondsport’s St. Gabriel Parish had just experienced one of its extreme lows historically — but was about to turn that tragic circumstance into one of its proudest moments.
 
The nadir came on April 12, 1909, the day after Easter, when a fire burned the 24-year-old church to the ground.
 
"The fire was so bad that embers carried to downtown buildings, and they caught fire," said Mary Lou O’Connor, St. Gabriel’s secretary/bookkeeper.
 
But the parish community pulled together and erected a new church within a few months. By December of that year, it was fully operational and Masses had returned to St. Gabriel. Construction of the facility has proven durable, as the parish community continues celebrating in the stone church today with relatively few structural changes along the way.
 
To honor this longevity, St. Gabriel held a 100th-anniversary celebration for the church during 5 p.m. Mass on Saturday, Aug. 8, with Bishop Matthew H. Clark serving as celebrant. According to O’Connor, the church was filled just about to capacity with 222 people in attendance.
 
Highlights of the liturgy included the presence of several former parish leaders as guests; a 22-member choir led by Bill Grimmer, music director, that combined folks from St. Gabriel and St. Mary in Bath; and a rendering of Pachelbel’s "Canon in D Minor" during the offertory by two young parish violinists, Jessica Anthony and Ruby Williams.
 
An informal reception followed the Mass under two tents on church grounds. That event featured appetizers, finger foods and decorative flowers provided by parishioners. In addition, Bishop Clark was presented with several gifts in honor of his 30th anniversary this year as Bishop of Rochester. The package, signifying Hammondsport’s presence in the heart of Finger Lakes wine country, included a grape-picking box, wine, cheese, chocolate and pieces of Keuka Lake promotional attire.
 
"This parish community loves to have Bishop Clark join us; they’re very fond of him. It was a wonderful celebration — so many people did so many different things (to help). And the food was unbelievable," said Maureen O’Neill, pastoral administrator of St. Gabriel. "People were just happy to be there, to celebrate the good times we have had in this community and the blessings we’ve received."
 
The event "was the result of the hard work of so many people," agreed O’Connor, a St. Gabriel parishioner since 1982, who noted that parishioners Bill Howe and Laura Rice served as cochairs of the event.
 
Photos and other memorabilia were on display from various eras in the life of the northern Steuben County parish, which was founded in 1843 at the southern tip of Keuka Lake. In 1885 the first church at St. Gabriel’s present location, 78 Shethar St., went up.
 
St. Gabriel survived not only the 1909 fire but also a significant flood in 1935 that caused considerable damage.
 
"The church was a mess. A log was sticking through one of the stained-glass windows," O’Neill said. The church also was redecorated and remodeled in 1965.
 
A quaint country parish during the colder months, St. Gabriel takes on a much different look and feel once summer arrives. Mass attendance doubles and even triples on some weekends, with a second liturgy offered to accommodate the huge influx of summer residents and tourists who flock to the lake and area wineries.
 
Despite the crowds, O’Neill said St. Gabriel maintains its focus on being an intimate, welcoming and caring parish.
 
"This is a dedicated community. People are willing to work and help one another," she remarked.
 
In 1994 St. Gabriel was part of a historic development when Sister Anne Michelle McGill, SSJ, became the first pastoral administrator — a non-priest who oversees operation of a parish — in the Rochester Diocese. Sister McGill performed that role for 12 years before being succeeded by O’Neill in 2006.
 
Next year St. Gabriel will become clustered with St. Mary in Bath. The two parishes have shared a sacramental minister for many years — currently that role is filled by Father James Jaeger — and are part of the Central Steuben Catholic Parishes planning group that also includes St. Catherine of Siena, Addison; St. Stanislaus, Bradford; and St. Joseph, Campbell.

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