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St. Mary's Catholic Church celebrates 100 years
St. Mary's Catholic Church celebrates 100 years
By JOSEPH KOZIOL JR.
Chardon was just a sleepy village surrounded by farmlands when people of the Catholic faith found a home there.
It was 1909 and construction just had begun on St. Mary's Catholic Church at the corner of Ferris Avenue and Cemetery Street, now known as Park Avenue.
To commemorate the establishment of the St. Mary parish 100 years ago, those of the faith have been holding a jubilee celebration to commemorate their longstanding ties to the community.
Carol Burtnett chairs the committee overseeing the celebration, which started last September and will conclude this September. St. Mary is named for Mary, the mother of God, she said.
While the exact date of the establishment of the parish has been lost to the annals of history, there is one person who is singled out as having started a petition drive to bring a Catholic church to Chardon.
Katherine Nulty, a housekeeper to a prominent Cleveland family who spent summers near Chardon, is the woman credited with starting the drive to bring a church here.
Up until that time, the few Catholic families in the area had received sporadic visits from priests of the Cleveland Diocese.
Miss Nulty, who made the summer visits, was distressed over the absence of a local Catholic Church and weekly Mass.
"With the support of Miss Nulty and other Cleveland Catholics, a small wooden church was already under construction on Cemetery Street," the Rev. Thomas C. Gilles said. "On Sept. 11, 1910, Bishop John Farrelly dedicated the church in the presence of an estimated 2,000 Catholics who had descended on Chardon to witness the event, most traveling by rail from Cleveland."
A local newspaper at the time reported that Realtors welcomed the new church, saying they had lost a good number of sales to Catholics who chose not to buy in an area without a church for them to attend.
Ms. Burtnett said she thought that, even with the rail extending to Chardon, it is quite remarkable that the church's dedication drew those kinds of numbers, considering what transportation was like in those days.
She said that early church may have had in the neighborhood of a couple of hundred parishioners. Today, the church serves 2,700 families, making it one of the largest, if not the largest Catholic congregation in Geauga County. She said the St. Anselm parish in Chester Township is running "neck and neck" in terms of members.
That early church was growing even in its early days and by 1932 plans were drawn for a new church. However, the Depression put a hold on those plans and a temporary alternative was to relocate the church to the site of the rectory on North Street, where it was enlarged and furnished with a basement that became the parish hall.
After World War II, Chardon and the area experienced its first growth spurt and the parish outgrew its little church. At that time, the Rev. James A. Walsh undertook the construction of a new brick church that seated 450 and an eight-room school building. The new church was dedicated on Aug. 15, 1962, about a year after St. Mary opened the first parochial school associated with a parish in Geauga County.
St. Mary School, which now serves preschool through eighth grade, eventually doubled in size.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Chardon was seeing its second influx in families and St. Mary's was growing again. By October 1999, the congregation was joining together in a new 900-capacity church. A new school and parish offices, as well as meeting rooms and banquet facility, also became part of the parish.
The parish priests took up residency in a century home along North Street that was built in 1869.
The Rev. Gilles, who has served as pastor of the church since 1992, said it is the people and their forward approach that has distinguished the church in its first 100 years.
"From its founding until the present, the faithful of this parish have taken the initiative of discerning the parish's needs and looking ahead to the future," he said. "My greatest joy has been to encourage this initiative as St. Mary's has entered the new millennium and now its second century as the Catholic community in Chardon."
In honor of the jubilee, the church has held monthly events, such as a children's concert and gathering of the alumni association, during the past year, she said.
Ms. Burtnett said it is the parish's willingness to give of itself that makes the parish what it is today.
"The parish is fortunate that so many parishioners from among the 2,700 households are actively involved in the 70 ministries offered," she said. "The church and school are alive with activity on most nights of the week."
One of the longest-standing ministries, she said, is the bereavement ministry, which also has the largest participation. Teams include over 150 volunteers, some of whom provide a luncheon on the day of the funeral, while others help the family plan the funeral liturgy and others follow up with cards and telephone calls to the bereaved.
She said new ministries are developed as the need arises. In the last decade, vacation Bible school, faith in action, and 10-minute catechism were added. The parish nurse program preceded the faith in action ministry, which helps challenged citizens and frail elderly with simple chores, transportation or companionship.
Last year, because of the downturn in the economy, the church began a community supper. Each month, a different parish ministry volunteers to provide desserts and a hot meal in the parish cafeteria on the last Thursday of the month. "Anyone in the community is welcome, regardless of whether they are in need, or just enjoy the fellowship," the Rev. Gilles said.
"There are many opportunities for parishioners to share their faith," the Rev. Gilles said. "St. Mary's has a vibrant RCIA (rite of Christian initiation of adults) ministry, and there are a number of Bible study groups. Dozens of volunteer catechists and aides model their faith right in the classroom for the nearly 600 students in the parish school of religion under the direction of Mrs. Anna Marie Zalar."
"With God's help, the people will continue to be the lifeblood of the parish, as they have been throughout its long and grace-filled history," the Rev. Gilles said.
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