The Coming of the Friars to St. Camillus

Roy Gasnick, OFM Friar News

SILVER SPRING, Md. — “The monks are coming, the monks are coming!” was the headline in a St. Camillus Parish bulletin 26 years ago announcing that the Franciscans of Holy Name Province were assuming pastoral ministry of the parish in Silver Spring.

The first “monk” to arrive was the new pastor, Martin Bednar, OFM, who was joined shortly by Michael McDonell, OFM, Charles Finnegan, OFM, and Peter Sheridan, OFM, who were to make up the first Franciscan priest team at St. Camillus in 1983. Marty remained as pastor until 1990.

A 2009 parish bulletin from the same parish on Aug. 9 in an article titled “Welcome (back) Fr. Martin,” noted that “Not only did Martin have the challenge of explaining who the Franciscans are and what they strive to be about, he also found himself in charge of a parish that was very quickly transitioning from a mostly Anglo parish to one that was increasingly ethnically diverse. This transition did not come without struggle, but Martin and the friars worked tirelessly to build bridges between the different communities.”

Marty had returned to the parish on Aug. 6 to begin a three-week stint of filling in for friars going on vacation. This was an opportunity for him to reflect on what was then and what is now.

Parish Growth
The first thing he noticed was the increased attendance at all the Masses, especially the Spanish-speaking Masses. When he first arrived at St. Camillus, he comments, “the Spanish-speaking Mass was scheduled for 2 pm on Sunday afternoon with only about 75 people attending. I took a big risk. It caused a lot of controversy, but I switched the time to 12:30 p.m. 200 people came at first and by the time I left the number was up to 400.”

Now, he notes, “there are about 300 at the Saturday 6:30 p.m. Spanish-language Mass, about 1,500 at the 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass and another 300 in a school gym in nearby Langley Park where a friar celebrates Mass in Spanish each Sunday.”

Marty said, “In the beginning, I came across a group of Vietnamese Catholics who were looking for a place to worship because other parishes couldn’t or wouldn’t accept them. So, I invited them, about 400 people, to use St. Camillus for a 2 p.m. Mass. The Vietnamese Catholic community began to grow and eventually raised enough money to build their own church.”

Treasured Multiculturalism
Marty also began a Mass in French for Haitian peoples in 1986. The Mass was celebrated only once a month and drew about 200 people. Now, as Marty has observed, the Mass caters to all French-speaking peoples and draws 400 to 500 enthusiastic Catholics every Sunday afternoon.

African-American Catholics were another challenge when Marty became pastor. “I formed a study/action group for ways to attract Black Catholics to St. Camillus and plan for appropriate Liturgies and other activities.” Today, Black Catholics are part of the mainstream of the parish.

When asked what impressed him most about St. Camillus Parish today, Marty replied, “First, that the huge parking lot is jammed with cars from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Sunday. Second, that the 10:30 am Sunday multicultural Mass celebrated in English but with the readings, hymns, other music and prayers of the faithful in different languages draws about 1,200 people every Sunday. And third, the amazing pastoral grasp that all the friar pastors and assistants have had over these 26 years for a parish with such cultural and ethnic diversity.”

The Aug. 9 parish bulletin gratefully suggested, “When you see Fr. Martin, give him a big welcome back and say thank you, because the rich multiculturalism that we so value here at Camillus was built on the foundation laid by this friar and others a quarter of a century ago.”

— Fr. Roy, a resident of St. Anthony’s Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla., was the founder of HNP’s Communications Office.