John Sandusky is among a tiny percentage of Catholics who can claim to be a founding member of a parish.
However, in 1953 he couldn’t have imagined that he’d also someday see his parish cease to exist.
At 71, Sandusky is the oldest active original parishioner of St. Pius X Church in the Village of Van Etten. Now that a closing liturgy is set to take place June 28, that 56-year history is complete.
"It’s tough — all the work and time and energy we put into it," Sandusky lamented.
Regular Sunday Mass ceased at St. Pius X in January 2009, and the church had since been used sparingly for special services. Father William Moorby, pastor of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes, recently noted that a non-Catholic congregation has begun renting St. Pius X ; therefore, this was an appropriate time for a closing Mass.
The June 28 liturgy will celebrate a church community whose beginnings can be traced back to Masses in 1953 at the Sandusky Hotel. The Waverly Street site, now the McAnn Hotel, was operated by Sandusky’s father. Worship first took place in the upstairs lobby and then the restaurant; in fact, Sandusky noted that the parish’s first wedding was held at the hotel.
Liturgies moved to the town hall to accommodate growing congregations from the Van Etten area of northeast Chemung County and its neighboring village of Spencer, Tioga County. A basement church was eventually constructed on Main Street, and its first Mass was held at midnight on Christmas Eve 1954. The church was dedicated in May 1955 by Bishop Lawrence B. Casey. An accompanying article in the Elmira Sunday Telegram reported that "bake sales, rummage sales, church suppers and private contributions made possible the construction of the basement and enclosed entrance to the church."
Yet Sandusky observed that the challenge to establish a parish involved more than just money.
"It was very difficult to get the Catholic Church here in the first place. The Catholics weren’t that well-received in this community in the 1940s," he said, noting that the era predated widespread efforts to promote ecumenism.
The basement setup was devised with the intent that when funds became available, a main church would be constructed. As it turned out, that didn’t occur until 1965, when the upper church was finally completed.
St. Pius X never had its own resident priest. Thus, lay input was a staple of the parish throughout its history. Sandusky noted that St. Pius X featured a highly active ladies’ Altar Rosary Society, as well as men who pooled together for lawn care and other maintenance.
In 2003 St. Pius X became part of the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick configuration, joining five Tioga County parishes: St. James, Waverly; St. John the Evangelist, Newark Valley; St. Francis of Assisi, Catatonk; St. Margaret Mary, Apalachin; and St. Patrick, Owego. St. Pius X was among the smallest of those churches, though Sandusky emphasized that it wasn’t lack of vibrancy but rather the priest shortage that led to his church’s closing.
"It’s a disappointment, but you can’t blame the (parish and diocesan officials.) We have no priests, and they can’t take care of all the churches," Sandusky said.
Sandusky said most St. Pius X congregants have relocated their Sunday worship to St. James, 15 miles to the south. Others have gone to such churches as St. Francis, Catatonk; St. Mary Our Mother, Horseheads; and Immaculate Conception, Ithaca. However, he noted that St. Francis worshipers are now seeking a new home of their own as well: The church will hold its last regular Sunday Mass on July 19 at 9:30 a.m.
Sandusky and his wife of his 50 years, Ruth, now attend Mass in Waverly, where they have found a welcoming community who "want us to join in." They both serve as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, and Ruth is a lector as well.
Liturgical ministry is nothing new for Sandusky: As a teen he was an altar server in St. Pius X’s early years, and he also held that role as an adult right up to the discontinuation of Sunday Masses.
"I kind of miss it," he remarked.