It’s true that Hamlin’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church got off to a rocky start, but not in the sense of the word shaky.
Rocks have been used as building material and inspiration throughout the rural church’s 25-year history.
The parish was the first of two begun by Bishop Matthew H. Clark (he also established Pittsford’s Church of the Transfiguration). People were asked to donate rocks as the church was being built, and the exterior and interior are decorated with them. Many founding members who still attend the parish can point out the stones they contributed.
On Jan. 4 the church marked the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton by celebrating Mass, hosting a dinner of stone soup and singing a rock-themed hymn written for the parish. The anniversary of the parish’s founding will be celebrated at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 with a Mass and a reception. Father William J. Amann will preside; before retiring, he served for 17 years as the parish’s first priest. During the Mass he will speak about the church’s early days.
Parishioners will commemorate the anniversary of the groundbreaking of the church with an outdoor Mass at 5 p.m. June 9, which will include a time for parishioners to bring in rocks to build light posts at both driveway entrances. Bishop Clark will help the parish celebrate its anniversary during a parish picnic following the 10:30 a.m. Mass Aug. 5.
The parish was formed in 1982 to help serve increasing Catholic populations in Brockport, Hilton and Kendall. According to Catholic Courier articles about its founding, the church’s name was chosen because of a promise Bishop Clark made to a young woman being confirmed. She had chosen for her confirmation name that of a new saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton. He responded that if he ever founded a parish, he would name it after the saint.
During the feast-day celebration, Father Amann spoke about the saint’s history as a widow and mother who founded the American Catholic free parochial-school system and started the Sisters of Charity order. A New York City native, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first American-born saint, he said.
“She never founded a house for widowed people, but she did nurse and care for many widows,” Father Amann noted.
The church possesses one of the saint’s relics as well as a rock from the stream in which she washed her clothes. The rock, given to the church by representatives of her shrine in Emittsburg, M.D., was included in the walls of the church. The saint can be credited in part for giving church members their decorating inspiration, because she was said to have begun her ministries in a stone house.
Others rocks on the inside of the church include prized stones from parishioners, a Dutch brick recovered from the bottom of the Caribbean, marble pieces from the former altar of Rochester’s Holy Redeemer Church and an orange stone from Africa.
“They came from the seven continents of the world,” said Father William Spilly, pastor.
Many parishioners, such as Dick Koss, volunteered their time to help build the parish stone by stone. Volunteers, guided by a master mason, laid out the stones before they were cemented in place, he said. Others did everything from planting trees to raising trusses. The parish is still known for being very active, he said.
“We have always lived in Hamlin, so we were very happy when the church opened in Hamlin,” said his wife, Cathy Koss.
The church’s first Mass was held on Ash Wednesday in 1982 in a barn owned by a parish family. Parishioners still chuckle about the chickens that flapped their wings throughout the service. After the barn, Masses were held in an old train depot, where members worshipped at an altar made of railroad ties.
Parishioners say they haven’t lost touch with their humble roots.
“Everybody’s very down-to-earth,” said parishioner Mary Arnold. “We were very lucky to have Father Amann. He set the tone for the parish.”
The parish is currently involved in whole-community catechesis, an intergenerational effort to engage all parishioners in discussions about the tenets of Catholic faith, Father Spilly said. It still emphasizes participation from its lay members, in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II, he said.
“It was founded to be a Vatican II parish community, with a lot of involvement of the laity and of women,” Father Spilly noted.
That involvement included Sister of St. Joseph Mary Kay Ryan, who said she was hired to be the church’s religious-education coordinator and worked with the church from 1982 to 1992. When she applied for the position at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Sister Ryan had been teaching for 20 years and said she had felt inspired to look for a new ministry.
Now Sister Ryan works with Good Shepherd Catholic Community in Cayuga County. But she still has a soft spot for the Hamlin parish.
“This is like home,” Sister Ryan said. “I come pretty regularly.”
Father Amann said he also felt very warmly welcomed upon his return to the parish.
“It gives me a confidence and a competence that the church is alive and well and growing — not only this church, but the church as a whole,” he said.