Tom Letteer owns the distinction of altar serving at the very first Mass of St. Benedict’s Parish, held Christmas Day 1955. This past Jan. 7, he couldn’t have found a more pleasant way for history to repeat itself.
After a nearly 50-year hiatus from that role, Letteer was called back into duty for St. Benedict’s golden jubilee liturgy — and was joined by his granddaughter, Stephanie, who is now an altar server at St. Benedict’s herself.
Slightly more than 100 parishioners past and present — including many founding members such as Letteer — filled the church for the 5 p.m. anniversary Mass. Bishop Matthew H. Clark served as celebrant, and was joined by several priests and deacons currently or formerly associated with St. Benedict’s. The Mass was followed by a reception that featured a historical display of pictures and other memorabilia.
The church is located at 304 Speedway Road in the village of Odessa. It is the only diocesan parish named for St. Benedict — an extra-special distinction now that our new pope took the name of Benedict XVI last April.
For many years St. Benedict’s has shared a pastor with St. Mary of the Lake in Watkins Glen, forming the Schuyler Catholic Community cluster. The current pastor, Father Paul Bonacci, has served the cluster since 2001.
St. Benedict’s Chapel was opened in a basement in 1955, with Father Benedict Ehmann serving as founding pastor. The first evidence of parish activity actually dates back a few years earlier, when religious-education classes were begun in a cleaned-out chicken coop and Masses were held at a funeral home. The basement chapel served as the parish’s Mass site until the upper church was completed in the mid-1960s.
“It was done kind of piecemeal. When we had the money, we built some more … we had to fight so hard to get the church — bake sales, door-to-door, asking for money,” Letteer remarked. His wife, Nan, noted that an apron would often be passed around so that the pockets could be filled with money to be put toward the church construction.
“There is such a special spirit in that little church. The founders and their families who were able to be there (at the anniversary Mass) are so filled with pride, and yet very humble people. They put their hearts into making building the church possible,” said Brenda Herforth, who served as organizer of the 50-year celebration.
“It is a community that cares deeply about each and every one of the members. It is very much like an extended family. Everyone tries to help do their part to keep the church viable,” said Joan Taber, who compiled a parish history that was distributed at the 50th-anniversary Mass.
Pride is evidenced today by the strong volunteerism throughout this 100-family community. Numerous parishioners carry out multiple duties, either through liturgical roles, committees or general upkeep of the church. St. Benedict’s parishioners “are some of the nicest people that you’d ever meet — always willing to help,” said Tim Jaynes, who serves as president of the St. Benedict’s Society (his wife, Janet, is treasurer). That group raises funds for various improvements to the church, such as a new chair lift and ambo that were recently added.
Nan Letteer said her husband often drives his lawn mower right over to the nearby church to cut the grass, and that several parishioners assist with snow-plowing duties and pitch in for social events. For instance, she and some other women made 40 pans of lasagna for an annual fundraising dinner this past fall.
“The ‘angels’ who stop by and do extra cleaning, fix kneelers, mow the lawn, change light bulbs, wash linens, etc., without being seen or heard are amazing,” Herforth remarked.
Though the parish is obviously very tight-knit, it’s not so exclusive as to shut out others. Herforth related the story of two men who began appearing at weekly 5 p.m. Saturday Mass, but wouldn’t come in any further than the back of the church. Yet parishioners kept inviting them each week, and the men eventually became fully involved in the celebration.
Herforth said that at St. Benedict’s, “You will see people conversing and smiling long before Mass begins and long after it ends.”
That was certainly the case for the Jan. 7 celebration, according to Taber.
“The atmosphere was very joyful, the church was beautiful — decorated with red poinsettias,” she noted, adding that “the bishop was very friendly and seemed genuinely glad to be a part of our celebration.”
Nan Letteer agreed that Bishop Clark added to the happiness with his warm presence.
“I just think people were so honored to have him there and so pleased,” she said.
“It went excellent,” Jaynes said of the jubilee affair. “Especially for the original founders of the church, they were just exuberant about how things went.”