With Bishop Matthew H. Clark set to celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Mass and several additional activities planned for Sunday, April 25, sufficient attention is seemingly being given to St. Catherine of Siena Parish’s 50th anniversary.
Actually, that’s just the beginning.
The celebration will carry all the way through April of 2012, with future events including a parish retreat, printing of a new parish directory, and special concerts and programs. These festivities will celebrate a parish that was begun in 1960 under the guidance of its founding pastor, Msgr. Donald M. Cleary. The church wasn’t dedicated until 1962 and thus, the 50th-anniversary observance will last two years.
In the opinion of charter member Edna Michael, the parish has been strongly supported from day one. She chaired its very first festival and noted that women’s groups staged bazaars while men put on spaghetti suppers and pancake breakfasts in an effort to get the church built.
"We raised a lot of money. Everyone was very cooperative in raising funds," recalled Michael, 84, who has held numerous leadership roles at St. Catherine over the years. Michael is one of approximately 20 founding parishioners who will be honored at the April 25 liturgy.
Also along the lines of noting its roots, the parish will highlight its patron saint frequently during the anniversary period. St. Catherine of Siena, a Dominican tertiary whose feast day is April 29, was canonized in 1461, 81 years after her death at age 33. She was a renowned philosopher and theologian and is patron saint of both Italy and Europe. Weekly "did you know" blurbs, noting her life and works, have begun appearing in the parish bulletin and will run for two years. The writings are compiled by Michael Twomey, an anniversary-committee member.
"I’m going chronologically, so I’ve gone up to about age 5 so far," Twomey noted. He added that Sister Nancy Murray, OP — who tours the country with her one-woman program about St. Catherine of Siena and is the sister of famed actor/comedian Bill Murray — will perform at the Ithaca parish in April 2011.
The 50th-anniversary events will celebrate a parish that’s packed with activities and ministries, according to Sister Mary O’Brien, CSJ, St. Catherine’s temporary pastoral administrator. Sister O’Brien cited a book club; children’s play groups for the parish’s many young families; a "fabulous" choir under Sherry Scanza, music director; and ongoing support of a mission in the Dominican Republic that was founded by Father Ronald Gaesser, retired pastor of St. Catherine. In fact, a 23-member contingent of high-school students and adult chaperons was due to leave on Easter Sunday, April 4, for a mission trip there.
Steve Jesch, chair of the anniversary committee, said he and his family were initially drawn to St. Catherine after attending a first Communion at the parish nearly a decade ago, shortly after moving to Ithaca.
"What we really noticed was this sense of vibrancy. It was almost like the entire parish took it upon themselves to make sure that these kids were going to understand what they were doing," Jesch said.
Sister O’Brien’s tenure at St. Catherine dates back to 2003, when she began as pastoral associate. She described the parish as accepting and welcoming, which she said is vital in this renowned college town where new faces surface frequently and are of many ethnic backgrounds.
This diversity will be evident on Pentecost Sunday, May 23: In the same way that Jesus’ first disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News in various tongues, Sister O’Brien said that numerous cultures traditionally take part in St. Catherine’s Pentecost liturgies. They recite prayers in a number of languages, including "some I’ve never even heard of," she remarked.
Michael, for one, is proud of St. Catherine’s emphasis on inclusion of all.
"It’s a very warm parish. It’s just such a wonderful place — just a lovely parish," she said.
Sister O’Brien further observed that members are not only welcomed, but empowered.
"One of the things that has been very strong is, we elicit a lot of feedback from the people — ‘what do you think about this?’ There’s a strong sense that your opinion matters," she said.
"We‘re absolutely blessed in this parish. It’s not necessarily a single person; the whole community works very well together," Jesch added.
That unity was perhaps never more vital than in this past year, following the unanticipated death of Father Michael Mahler, pastor, last June 29. Jesch acknowledged that the loss of Father Mahler was a huge blow, but "there’s a lot of people in the parish who pulled together and pushed our way through."
Sister O’Brien said Father Mahler will be recalled fondly during the anniversary proceedings, noting that "one of the last things he did was set up the beginning date and the end date for this celebration."