ROCHESTER — Helen Bittner said she could remember when Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish on Joseph Avenue regularly held dances every Saturday night.
“The floor was wavy,” she said. “Your feet would hurt for two weeks.”
Bittner had a host of memories to share as current and former parishioners gathered on the afternoon of Oct. 24 at the Diplomat Banquet Center on Lyell Avenue to celebrate the parish’s 100th anniversary. Among her many activities at the parish over the years, she served as a member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of St. John, to which her late husband, John, belonged.
“It was a lot of work, but we had a lot of fun,” Bittner said.
At 96, Bittner is the oldest member of Perpetual Help, and she served as honorary chairwoman of the community’s 100th-anniversary committee. The parish has held several events over the past year to mark the anniversary, according to Judy Neumann, chairwoman of the anniversary committee, including a celebration of its children on the morning of Oct. 24. The celebration featured a children’s costume parade. Upcoming events include a gospel Mass on Sunday, Nov. 7, at 10 a.m., and closing celebration on New Year’s Eve.
The parish has a lot to celebrate, according to Father Peter A. Deckman, pastor of both Perpetual Help and St. Michael’s on North Clinton Avenue. Of the two, St. Michael’s has the larger Hispanic population, he said, but Perpetual Help has 20 percent to 30 percent Hispanic parishioners and holds Masses in both Spanish and English. He added that Perpetual Help is a diverse parish with white, black and Hispanic members among its 350 or so families.
“It’s a United Nations of parishes,” Father Deckman said, adding that he has enjoyed his more than two years as pastor.
“They’re very generous and spirited,” he said of his parishioners. “They’re willing to collaborate and work with their church.”
Perpetual Help was founded to serve residents of both Rochester and Irondequoit, and gained its name because Andrew Wollensack, one of its most prominent founders, was devoted to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The church’s cornerstone was laid Sept. 11, 1904, and its first services began in January 1905. The parish has had five pastors, including Father Deckman, and his immediate predecessor, Father Neil Miller, retired from the pastorate in 2002 after 17 years.
“My life has been blessed by the people working here who have a great spirit,” Father Miller said of his former parishioners. “They were not an exclusive parish — they became an inclusive parish, and the Lord has blessed them, and I pray the Lord will continue to bless them.”
Indeed, according to a parish history, Father Miller helped lead the way toward making Perpetual Help an inclusive parish by beginning a weekly Spanish Mass in 1986. On that note, Norma Bruni, a parishioner for 16 years, is one of many Puerto Ricans who call Perpetual Help home. A parish trustee, Bruni noted that she serves on several Perpetual Help committees, ranging from parish life and pastoral planning to finance and gardening. That’s right, gardening. She noted that she’s so dedicated to the parish garden — located between the church and the rectory — that she’s asked for funding to buy mulch by pleading for it from the pulpit.
Bruni said she gives a lot to Perpetual Help because God has blessed her life through good times and bad.
“Now I think it’s time, because I’m sitting pretty, to give back,” she said with a smile.
As for Perpetual Help’s future, two gentlemen, Angel Concepcion and Dan Callan, are working with more than 20 youngsters a week in the parish youth group, trying to bring faith to bear on their lives. Concepcion said the youth meetings start out with fun and games, not to mention pizza and wings, but eventually turn to a reflective discussion of the Sunday readings. Concepcion added that he works with inner-city youngsters because they are often negatively stereotyped by the wider society.
“We’re giving them a chance to actually talk,” he said. “I don’t like to label and judge them.”
Callan added that many young people won’t ask for the structure and discipline of faith, but deep down, they want it.
“They’re looking for something they can depend on every week,” he said.
And people can depend on Perpetual Help, according to Bruni. She noted that parishioners know each other so well that they inquire after each other if someone misses a weekend Mass.
“Our parish is a huge family,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing to walk into (church) and go to Mass. You walk in there and get hooked, just like I was 16 years ago.”