ROCHESTER — The fact that St. Mary Parish is the same age as the City of Rochester — 175 years old — didn’t escape notice during a parish birthday celebration.
In addition to sharing a vintage, the parish and city have been closely connected throughout the years, according to leaders and parishioners speaking at a May 9 parish-anniversary Mass at the downtown church.
Parish leaders said St. Mary has long reached out to the poor and needy in the city through volunteer and financial support of such ministries as Bethany House, St. Joseph Neighborhood Center, St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality and a children’s book-circulation program called the Bright Red Bookshelf; by helping the city’s needy with food, assistance and holiday gifts; and by participating in other social-justice initiatives.
The parish also is home to the Downtown Community Forum, which hosts discussion on current topics, including many urban issues. Many city festivals and celebrations have begun with Masses at St. Mary. Musicians from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music are very involved in St. Mary’s music ministry.
"I love the way the people are involved in outreach and the close working relationship we have with the city," said Father Bill Donnelly, who for the past 12 years has been the parish’s pastor and sacramental minister.
The Mass was attended by city and county officials, including Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy, who noted his parents were married at St. Mary in 1947.
"It’s one thing to come to church on Sunday," Mayor Duffy said. "It’s another thing to see a church that follows and walks its faith the other six days of the week."
St. Mary has the distinction of being the oldest Catholic parish still in operation in the City of Rochester. It was founded in 1834 by a group of parishioners from the former St. Patrick Parish in Rochester. At the time, Rochester was part of the Archdiocese of New York. The territory was split off into the Diocese of Buffalo in 1847, and in 1868 became part of the new Diocese of Rochester.
The current site for the church was purchased in 1852, and construction was begun in 1853. When the church was finished, five years and $40,000 later, it was illuminated with 130 gas-burning lamps,and the walls, ceilings and pillars featured paintings of Biblical stories and scenes of the lives of saints.
The Sisters of Mercy began working at St. Mary in 1857 and started a school in the parish basement. Other parish ministries founded in the 1800s included a soup kitchen, a women’s shelter and employment office, an industrial school, an academy for girls, St. Vincent de Paul Men’s Society, an orphanage and a nursery school.
The church boasts a signed Tiffany rose window that was installed in 1916. According to parishioners, St. Mary is believed to have been the first parish in the nation to have air conditioning when it was installed in 1947.
A fire in the basement of the church happened on Easter Sunday 1971, but the main church was not heavily damaged. Renovation after the fire took place quickly, and in 1983, Rochester’s deaf community came together to form a parish in St. Mary’s basement; this parish later moved to the 19th Ward.
In his homily during the anniversary Mass, Bishop Matthew H. Clark noted that although changes have occurred in the parish over the years, Christ’s love remained constant.
"Thirty years from now, 50 years from now, the parish will probably look a lot different, and we probably can’t even imagine the things that will occur," the bishop said.
During the Mass, parishioners presented Bishop Clark with a picture of the church in 1885 and a prayer shawl made and blessed by parishioners.
Although the Mass and a gala afterwards were one of the largest events scheduled for the 175th anniversary, plans have been made to continue the celebration throughout the year. Upcoming events include a Rochester Red Wings outing, a chicken barbecue, an ice cream social and a party in Manhattan Square Park.
Pastoral administrator Anne-Marie Brogan noted that because residences that used to surround the church have long given way to office buildings, St. Mary’s parishioners make a choice to attend.
"People deliberately choose to come to St. Mary’s because of its reputation of liturgy and music and social ministry," Brogan said.
The church has attracted new parishioners in recent years, with employees of downtown businesses who attend daily Mass there returning to the parish on the weekends as well.
One downtown employee who was drawn in was Thomas Haley of Rochester, who said he was motivated to attend because he knew Father Jim Lawlor and Sister Joan Sobala from their work at the University of Rochester’s Newman Community before they moved to St. Mary Parish. Now Haley is active in several ways, including volunteering at School No. 9 with other parishioners; he helps kindergartners learn to read and count.
"All the various outreaches we have here are all aimed at trying to put the words in the Gospel into action and helping anywhere we can in the community," he said.
James Hardy and his wife, Mary Kniep-Hardy of Rochester, were drawn to St. Mary in 1983 after they found out that Father Lawlor and Sister Sobala had moved there.
"Even though St. Mary’s is a parish of choice, and it is downtown and there are not neighborhood residences around it, we are all connected to each other in lots of unusual ways," Hardy said.
Hardy, cochair of the parish’s strategic-planning committee, said he has noticed that recently more children have been attending St. Mary — a good sign for the future of the parish. In addition to parishioners working more with Blessed Sacrament and St. Boniface churches, the other parishes in the Monroe-Clinton cluster, Hardy said another parish goal is to do more to bring people in. Although the focus has long been on being welcoming, parishioners hope to reach out even more.
"We want to be more of an inviting parish, which is a notch up from being welcoming," Hardy said.