Province’s Virginia Parish Celebrates 50th Anniversary

HNP Communications In the Headlines

TRIANGLE, Va. — St. Francis of Assisi Parish here concluded its year-long 50th anniversary celebration with a Mass on Sunday, highlighted by a homily from Provincial Minister John O’Connor, OFM,  that was translated into Spanish for the parish’s first bilingual service. 

It was standing room only, as John fondly recalled his service to the parish, from 1991-2005, as a time when the congregation grew to more than 2,000 families and expanded its outreach in the community with the establishment of Francis House. It was also a time when additions to the church were built, including classrooms, a religious education wing, a library, gym and dining facility, all making the parish campus what it is today. 

The Very Rev. Paul Loverde, bishop of the Arlington, Va., Diocese, who presided at the Mass, complimented the parish, saying he wished the friars would serve there “forever.”

The weekend events, which marked the actual anniversary of the church on Nov. 4, were a fitting tribute to a parish that has stood the test of time. Best known for its lay leadership, community outreach, and faithful membership, St. Francis of Assisi Parish is a welcoming beacon of the Gospel in the Prince William County, in both English and Spanish.

The anniversary celebration, which began last November with a kick-off dinner dance, came to a close with a gala event Saturday night at the Holiday Inn at Fredericksburg, Va., attended by more than 200 people. 

Although the parish school was originally founded before the church in September 1957, it has not yet reached its 50-year mark because of a 10-year closing in the late ’60s when enrollment dropped. 

The church first began gathering for Mass on Nov. 4, 1957, in the school cafeteria. For more than 25 years, the congregation sat on metal chairs in the school cafeteria, until the church building was constructed in 1984.  The first pastor was Gervase McMillen, OFM The late Angelus DeMarco, OFM, was pastor when the church was built, serving from 1973 to 1984.  The history of the parish was described in a video, produced by several parishioners, shown at Saturday’s dinner.

Founded as a spiritual home for Catholic residents at the nearby Marine Corps base, Quantico, the church has since welcomed many of the area’s military families. “Because of its location, there is a high turnover rate of military and suburban families moving on after a few years,” said pastor Charles Miller, OFM.  “But newcomers are welcomed and engage very quickly and wholeheartedly.”

The parish holds many fond memories in the Provincial Office. In addition to John’s roots here, Provincial VicarDominic Monti, OFM, also served the Triangle parish on weekends for many years. Charles said: “The friars were here from the beginning of this parish and have been part of its phenomenal growth. Though much larger and more complex than it was 50 years ago, it has the same wonderful spirit and enthusiastic participation of the parishioners.”

He added: “I have been here only a year, but felt at home almost immediately. The staff and parishioners have a long tradition of partnership and collaboration, a deep sense of ownership and pride in their parish, and a very strong emphasis on the Eucharist and on the social outreach that flows from that.”

Friars Remember Fondly

Many familiar faces attended the weekend celebration, including Octavio Duran, OFM, who traveled from the Province’s New York office to photograph the events for posterity.

The anniversary also brought back good memories for members of the Holy Name community, including Mark Reamer, OFM, and Gene Pistacchio, OFM, who served here. 

“I have great memories of St. Francis of Assisi in Triangle,” said Mark.  “Frank Sevola, OFM, and I were ordained deacons there in 1991. It was my first assignment after ordination. I also spent two years there while a formation student at Holy Name College. It was because of that experience as a student that I met the Navy chaplains at Quantico, and I became a Reserve Navy chaplain. I held my commission for 13 years before resigning to become pastor at St. Francis of Assisi, Raleigh.”

Gene, who serves at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, recalled the strength of lay leadership at the parish, especially when he served as assistant pastor under John from 1997-2005. “It was exciting to be a part of a growing parish and a friar team where lay leadership was very much encouraged and nurtured,” he said. “I witnessed the dynamic growth of the pastoral council as lay leaders worked assiduously to communicate and implement the goals, values and vision of an enabling mission statement with the Gospel as its focus. Inclusion and empowerment are two key words that I would use to describe the energy of this parish. At St. Francis Parish, both friars and laity work side by side and the vision of Vatican II is strongly experienced in this energetic community of faith.”

Celebrating Church History & Parishioners
A parish-wide reception followed the Mass, with parishioners making the grounds festive by donating a sea of yellow mums, according to Margaret Bruni, director of Faith Formation, who chaired the anniversary committee. 

The parish also opened a time capsule from 1957, that included a copy of Life magazine, newspapers, a hand-written list of founders, silver coins, official documents, and memorabilia from St. Bonaventure University, which was preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1958. 

In addition, the Francis Medal was given to three parishioners. Lewis and Joan Breeding and family were honored with the medal for their founding support of the parish. They are one of the families that continue to be involved, after three generations. 

Julie Durbin was also honored for being a catechist for more than 10 years, and bringing deep faith and enthusiasm to her work with children. She has often taught class from a wheelchair, and hasn’t let it hinder her. “She is a vibrant example of Christian joy in the midst of life’s trials, and of Christian hospitality, opening her home to unwed mothers, offering them care and support,” said Charles. 

The last medal went to Claire Hurley, another cornerstone of the parish since 1959. A friend, confidante and supporter of the friars and families, Hurley is a key member of the visitation ministry, greeting the hospitalized and homebound. “Hospitality, her gentle compassion, and heart of gold are an example each day of Franciscan care for others,” said Charles.

The Year in Review
During the past year, the parish held a variety of celebration events. They included: 
• January — Partners in Ministry appreciation day 
• February — World Marriage Day – dinner for couples celebrating 50 years of marriage 
• March — Parish pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy 
• April — Parish mission with Dominic
• June — Anniversary cruise to Bermuda 
• July — Founders Celebration honoring 23 founding families

“It was a great year,” said Bruni. “A really nice way to celebrate.”

Shown in photo with Bishop Loverde are, from left, Francis McHughRobert Menard,  Charles, Christopher VanHaight, John, Gene Pistacchio, Louis Iasiello, and Fr. Robert Cilinski, dean of the region, third from right.

Information about the Province’s parishes — from New England to Florida — can be found in the Our Work section of Holy Name’s Web site.  Details about the history of the Triangle parish wil be featured in the spring 2008 issue ofThe Anthonian.

— Wendy Healy, a freelance writer based in Danbury, Conn., contributes frequently to this newsletter.