Anniversary Celebration Continues at St. Camillus Parish and St. Francis International School

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

SILVER SPRING, Md.– St. Camillus Parish and St. Francis International School, both located on a 15-acre campus in the large urban community that’s part of the Capital Beltway near Washington, D.C., haven’t quite finished celebrating their 65th anniversary. Events commemorating this milestone, which was marked in 2019, are planned for the new year. The first on Jan. 29, during National Catholic Schools Week, when Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory is scheduled to preside at a special Mass, alongside Franciscan friars, to acknowledge the parish’s six-decades-plus commitment to Catholic education and the 10-year anniversary since the school began operating as St. Francis International.

Pastor Chris Posch celebrates a Mass commemorating the 65th anniversary of the construction of the St. Camillus Parish Life and Education Center. (Photo courtesy of St. Camillus Facebook Page)

The Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province have been ministering pastorally and administratively at the parish and school since 1984 for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Like many of the commemorative events held in 2019, the upcoming Mass will showcase the cultural diversity and vibrant ministry and community life that have become the foundational identity of the parish and school during their 65-year presence in Silver Spring.. The student population will play a dynamic role in the liturgy, among other things, presenting the prayer of the faithful in multiple languages, and participating in dance and procession in authenic cultural dress during the offertory.

Just as a parish-wide, multilingual, intercultural retreat last November, the Mass later this month is aimed at connecting the parish’s history with the present and future, according to Christopher Posch, OFM, pastor of St. Camillus since 2016.

“It shows that our parish is committed to the idea that in order to continue the type of unity and mission that began on these sacred groundsin 1954, we must continue to intentionally build our community in an increasingly intercultural, multilingual world,” said Chris, who served as director of the office of Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Wilmington in Delaware for nearly 18 years before begin assigned to St. Camillus.

This intercultural world has never been more evident than at St. Camillus Parish and St. Francis International School, the latter where 80 percent of the 440 enrolled students have at least one immigrant parent. These parents collectively hail from 50 different countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and South and East Asia, among them El Salvador, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines.

At the parish, more than 4,500 worshippers attend 10 weekend Masses in three languages – English, Spanish, and French (with Masses in Haitian, Creole, Bangla, and the Mayan language of Mam celebrated during certain times of the year). There are also Sunday school programs in five languages.

Commitment to Catholic Education
Tobias Harkleroad, OFS, founding principal of St. Francis International and who served as principal for the institution’s final two years as St. Camillus School, said the 65th anniversary has reinforced his belief in the impact of Catholic schools, especially those that serve diverse communities and urban immigrant families.

Chris Posch and Jean-Marie Kabango-Lenge with a group of French-speaking parishioners. (Photo courtesy of St. Camillus Facebook Page)

“It’s important for parishes and Catholic institutions to stay committed to their values, and St. Camillus has done that for 65 years. Since the arrival of the friars, the parish and school have been steadfast in their commitment to Franciscan Catholic values,” said Harkleroad, a parishioner of St. Camillus since 2004 and a former member of the parish council, and a key figure in the school’s transition to St. Francis International in 2010.

“Despite changing demographics and economics, we made a conscious effort 10 years ago as a parish and as a school to continue our 65-year commitment to Catholic education,” explained Harkleroad, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and member of the Third Order Secular Franciscans. “As a community, we felt it was vital that children who are part of the parish and neighborhood continued to have access to this gift of Catholic education that dates back to 1954 at St. Camillus. We wanted our school to be stronger, and to make sure that it survived well into the future.”

As a result, the parish joined with other local parochial schools and opened SFIS in 2010 in the former St. Camillus School building, educating students Pre-K through 8th grade. The word “international” was incorporated into the name of the new school to acknowledge the changing demographics and vast proportion of students whose parents are immigrants.

The parish has always enjoyed a strong identity with the school throughout its long history, as evidenced by the school serving as a major center for parish and community life, with after-hours events, activities and ministerial programs hosted in the building seven days a week.

At the end of last summer, parishioners and parents of school children embarked on the Mary Shrine Project, converting the circle garden area outside the main doors of the school’s multipurpose room into a shrine whose work will be completed just in time for a dedication ceremony to coincide with the parish’s annual spring festival.

Diversity Evident in 65th Celebration Events
From 1951 to 1954, the parishioners worshipped in a large house on weekdays and in a local movie theatre on Sundays. The year 1954 saw the construction of the first buildings on the parish site.

A series of commemorative events was held in 2019 in celebration of the 65th anniversary of these first structures on the campus. They included a special prayer service and re-christening of the school building as the Parish Life and Education Center. Celebrations began on Sept. 23, the same date in 1954 that marked the school first opening.

Bishop Dorsonville blesses Erick López as Erick leaves St. Camillus to join the novitiate formation team in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Photo courtesy of the St. Camillus Facebook Page)

One of the biggest celebrations last year was a daylong series of events on Oct. 19 that began with an anniversary Mass in the Camillia Room, where several hundred additional folding chairs were needed to accommodate worshippers. The altar was the original from a chapel in the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur convent, where the first parish Mass was held on that same date in 1954. Mass was held in the Camillia Room for 16 years until the church was built in 1970. To coincide with celebratory events later this year that will mark the 50th anniversary of the construction of the church, the parish will launch a major capital campaign to fund a series of upgrades and renovations of major systems and infrastructure of the three buildings on the St. Camillus campus, according to Chris.

The Oct. 19 Mass was followed by an open house at SFIS, where parish ministries showcased their programs, and where dozens of cultures and regions were on exhibit in classrooms in the wing of the school’s original footprint. The festivities moved outdoors with a family block party jointly sponsored by the school parents club and the parish faith formation program. The event featured an African fashion show, cultural dance performances and entertainment by the African, Bangla and Langley Park Guatemalan communities, children’s games and activities, and a massive potluck barbecue. The celebration concluded that evening with a founder’s dinner reception.

One of the challenges of being a diverse population, says Harkleroad, is “figuring out how to live that diversity in harmony and balancing the needs of many different backgrounds. Our common identity is God, our universal Father,” he said.

Harkleroad also called the parish an “amazing community” with an “extraordinary level of vitality.

“The worship, charity, faith formation, and commitment to social justice have made it stand out as an oasis for the past 65 years. The Franciscan charism is valued in the community – seeing God alive, and celebrating, embracing and nurturing everyone. The friars have been a huge part of the identity of this parish for more than half of its history,” he said.

First Friars Build Bridges
The first fraternity of friars to arrive at St. Camillus included Martin Bednar, OFM, the first Franciscan to serve as pastor, OFM, Charles Finnegan, OFM, and the late Michael McDonnell, OFM, and Peter Sheridan, OFM. Stepping into a parish that was quickly transforming from a mostly Anglo environment to one that was ethnically and culturally diverse, the Franciscan charism took root as the friars built bridges between communities and showed how diversity and difference was a strength.

Chris Posch with a brick marking the founding of the parish in 1954. (Photo courtesy of St. Camillus Facebook Page)

Larry Hayes, OFM, Provincial Vicar of Holy Name Province who was assigned to St. Camillus from 2002 to 2011, and who returned to the parish on Jan. 10, was looking forward to the home-coming and reconnection with Silver Spring parishioners.

“St. Camillus parishioners – with their diversity, deep faith, strong sense of community and service, and warm and welcoming ways – are a delight and a blessing. I look forward to walking with them in faith once again,” said Lawrence, who had been stationed for the past two years at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey.

Larry shared a special memory from his past assignment at St. Camillus that he says captures the spirit of the 65th anniversary and the identity of the parish.

“After a weekday morning Mass, an older white parishioner told me: ‘Fr. Larry, we were on vacation last week. We went to church on Sunday and I just didn’t feel comfortable. I looked around and realized why. I noticed that everyone in the church was white. That’s not how Jesus would want it. That’s not how the Church should be.’ For me,” said Larry, “the parishioner’s need for the Church as inclusive and diverse was indicative of the spirit of St. Camillus.”

With a vast number of pastoral, outreach and social justice ministries and programs – among them a food pantry, emergency assistance fund, English as a second language classes, domestic violence resources, peace camps, low-income housing for seniors, and programs that provide counsel to immigrants – St. Camillus Parish is well prepared to embark on the next 65 years of living its foundational identity and what it means to be a parish of open minds, open hearts, and open doors.

— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.