N.J. Parish Commemorates 125-Year Franciscan History

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

LITTLE  FALLS, N.J. — Speeches were given, medals were awarded, and a festive dinner was enjoyed by parishioners and friars at the recent 125th anniversary dinner of Our Lady of Holy Angels Parish here.

The May 31 event, held at The Bethwood restaurant in nearby Totowa, was attended by nearly 500 volunteers, friars, parishioners and families.

In June, the parish marked the end of Franciscan presence. Beginning this month, the parish is under the administration of the Diocese of Paterson.

A Rich Franciscan History

The anniversary gathering commemorated the parish’s long history and its impact on the area. Its theme was “Celebrating our 125th Anniversary of Catholic Franciscan Presence in Little Falls.”

The church was established in 1883 by Franciscan friars based in nearby Paterson. These friars eventually became part of Holy Name Province when the community was founded in 1901. The first Holy Angels Church was dedicated June 29, 1884.

As Pastor Robert Sandoz, OFM, said in the journal: “Faith-filled people gathered together to remember. Tonight our reminiscence carried us back to the fall of 1883, when an immigrant friar set out to make the spiritual home for some struggling people in the village of Little Falls. Now, 125 years later, that community, founded in faith, has weathered many challenges, expanded to a degree that the first friar would never imagine, and celebrates a vitality that few Catholic parishes ever know.”

The parish, located in the Singac section of Little Falls, has grown through the years, as the population of Passaic and Essex counties grew.

According to a detailed parish history that appeared in the jubilee journal, shown in photo, in the mid-1880s, fewer than 100 families populated the towns now known as Little Falls, Cedar Grove, Fairfield and Wayne. “The Catholic families served as the domestic help for the wealthy Protestants who had come to make their homes in this area.”

After many years as a mission, or daughter church, Holy Angels was established in 1944 by the Diocese of Paterson as an independent parish. The parish now comprises more than 1,700 families. The current church building was dedicated in 1954.

Francis Medals

At the anniversary dinner, Robert distributed the Province’s Francis Medal to 17 parishioners and staffers. They were: Beverly Cuccinelli, Agnes Czaplinski, Elizabeth Gallagher, mother of Thomas Gallagher, OFM, William Hahn, Robert Haussmann, Sue Ann Jones, Kathryn Kane, Frank Mandala, Elaine McGough, Ralph and Brenda Miller, Robert and Lorraine Oechslin, Lisa Papciak, Pamela Rauscher, Laura Sodano and Michael Vaclavicek.

Papciak said she was honored and humbled to receive the award.

“I take seriously God’s call to Francis to ‘re-build my church’,” she said. “I do what I do, not for any award or recognition but because I believe in being a partner in ministering to God’s people.”

Since 1998, Holy Name Province has awarded this medal to express appreciation to women and men who have advanced the values and ideals of St. Francis and/or generously assisted the friars in living and proclaiming the Gospel and the example of St. Francis of Assisi.

Festive Celebration, Fond Farewell
The dinner dance, organized by Lisa Papciak, the parish’s coordinator for faith formation of children, and Sr. Nancy Grassia, OSF, included speeches by both Robert and Gregory Gebbia, OFM, who have served the parish since 1999.

“It was a fantastic evening — truly a night to celebrate,” Bob said. “We honored people who demonstrated, by their active stewardship, what involvement in a Franciscan community looks like.”
“There was great music, good food and much dancing,” said Peter Matushin, the parish’s director of technology and communications. “Although the guests were dressed in their Saturday evening best, the atmosphere was very relaxed.”

Since Holy Name Province announced in February that, due to the declining number of priests and other factors, it was withdrawing from two New York area parishes, many in the Holy Angels community have expressed their respect for the Franciscan leadership.

“The Franciscans have left a positive imprint on this parish community,” said Matushin, an employee since 2005.  “Although there will be a major void without their presence, Fr. Bob and Fr. Greg have instilled a leadership and stewardship. The parish is ready to carry this charism to the next phase of Holy Angels.”

Papciak said, “The Franciscan leadership of Fr. Robert and Fr. Gregory has been clear and consistent.  Through their own fine examples of being ‘doers of the Word,’ they empowered me and the members of this Holy Angels community to take ownership and to share our time, our talents and our treasure.   By doing so, we could fulfill the Mission of St. Francis to ‘rebuild my church.’  This Franciscan leadership also taught us that when we are blessed and we break open ourselves and share ourselves with one another, we will truly experience the Kingdom of God here and now.”

Gratitude to Friars
Parishioner Mary Louise Helwig-Rodriguez said that the Franciscan spirit is fully entrenched at Holy Angels.

“At a Franciscan church, there is a strong sense of community and of social justice,” she said.  “Franciscans tend to preach with the Gospel in one hand and a newspaper in the other, which is wonderful.”

The difference in the Franciscan style can be described through an analogy, she said. “If going to daily Mass is having a bowl of ice cream every day, we’re used having a bowl of chocolate ice cream. Now that we no longer have friars, it’s still ice cream, but it’s strawberry or vanilla — still Catholic, but a different flavor.”

Helwig-Rodriguez, a parishioner since the age of 4 and an active volunteer at Holy Angels, said in an essay that she wrote earlier this year, “The friars of Holy Name Province have taught me well.  They have encouraged me to find my voice in the Church and in the world, to preach the Gospel always … and, when necessary, to use words.”

She continued: “The friars have shown me the Lord’s love as one that will always forgive and never condemns. I have been spoiled by beautiful, life-giving liturgies,” she said in her essay titled “I am Franciscan,” “I have learned to praise and serve God with love, zeal and enthusiasm.”

The Franciscan element of our parish will never leave because it is part of our history,” said Matushin.  “It will never be forgotten or lost.”

“The Franciscan spirit is who we are,” Helwig-Rodriguez added.

Parishioners said farewell to the Franciscan friars on June 29 and welcomed two diocesan clergy, Msgr James O’Rorke, a retired priest, as temporary administrator, and Fr. Marek Biegus, as provincial vicar. Details about the farewell, as well as a chronology of service of the Franciscans, appeared in the July 3 issue of The Beacon, the Paterson diocesan newspaper.

As of July 1, Bob is serving as pastor at St. Joseph’s Church in East Rutherford, N.J.

— Jocelyn Thomas is communications director for Holy Name Province.