Masses in Polish. Numerous social events, including a big annual barbecue. The comfort of being surrounded by many familiar faces each Sunday at the small church along Route 96B.
All the goodness of Catatonk’s St. Francis of Assisi Parish was honored at a closing Mass Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis. The pews were packed as, for the final time, congregants celebrated the special connection that permeated this central Tioga County farming community for eight decades.
Christina Homrighouse, who is among descendants of a large family with St. Francis ties, said she was overcome with emotion by several people singing in Polish at the closing liturgy and knowing all the words. A post-Mass reception at Candor Fire Hall, featuring many photographs from St. Francis’ history, stoked those feelings even more.
"(It was) kind of going back in time, reflecting on the impact this small little site, these people, have had on you and your life. It feels like what you had was very, very unusual, a small parish like that, literally growing up there with your whole family," said Homrighouse, 41, a lifelong St. Francis parishioner who served as lector and organist for the final Mass.
"It’s your rock," she added.
St. Francis of Assisi was founded in 1929 due to an influx of Polish Catholic farming families in the Tioga area. Its church building — with a cornerstone containing the inscription "St. Franciszka 1930" — was dedicated Nov. 1, 1931.
St. Francis never had a resident priest, mostly sharing a pastor with St. John the Evangelist in Newark Valley, a bit more than 10 miles to the northeast. Portions of the Mass were regularly said in Polish throughout the church’s early decades, and many parishioners’ homes featured Polish as the main language. A strong sense of volunteerism helped keep the parish’s close ties intact, and in 1996 an extensive renovation project on the church was completed.
In 2003 St. Francis and St. John the Evangelist became part of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes along with St. James, Waverly; St. Pius X, Van Etten; St. Margaret Mary, Apalachin; and St. Patrick, Owego. St. Francis celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2006, but Father William Moorby, pastor of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick, announced in 2008 that St. Francis and St. Pius X would eventually close due to the declining number of available priests.
Following the closing of St. Pius earlier this year, St. Francis held its last regular Sunday Mass on July 19. The official closing Mass occurred several weeks later, so that it could be celebrated on the feast of its patron saint. Two nondenominational churches are now renting the Catholic facilities with an option to buy — Bridge of Hope Ministries at St. Francis and Hope Community Church at St. Pius X.
Homrighouse is former chair of the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parish pastoral council. She acknowledged that her involvement stemmed, in part, from wishing to enhance the long-term future of her beloved church.
"But you come to realize there’s nothing you can do to control it when you don’t have enough priests. It comes out to that bottom line," Homrighouse said, adding that concern about St. Francis’ ability to survive became apparent "probably as much as five years ago."
"Well, we knew it was coming. But it was still sad," said Glenna Wickline who shared organ duties with Homrighouse for the closing Mass.
"The thing is, people lose that connection from the small parish, now that they’re scattered around several sites," added Wickline, the longtime music director and social-justice committee member, who joined St. Francis in 1957.
Wickline now attends St. Margaret Mary and has joined the choir, although she now travels 18 miles to church — three times as far as her trip to St. Francis.
"I said I may miss some choir practices in the winter," she remarked.
Homrighouse said Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick has sought to line up rides for people from St. Francis who can’t easily negotiate the extra distance to other churches. She, on the other hand, is struggling to blend in at another worship site simply because it’s not St. Francis: "I think it’s just going to be a matter of time for a lot of us."
She and Wickline emphasized that the remaining Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick churches have been quite welcoming. For instance, Homrighouse mentioned a handwritten invitation she recently received from Leslie Fagan, St. James’ music director, asking her to join the choir there.
"And that really, really touched me," she said.