- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
When the Rev. Mark Smith was growing up in Rockville, his father listened to a series of tapes of talks given by Archbishop Fulton Sheen in 1974 for Catholic priests during a retreat held at Loyola Retreat House in Faulkner.
Smith remembers seeing that the tapes were shipped via Ministr-O-Media Inc., a nonprofit in Pomfret. Where in the world was Pomfret, Smith wondered.
Years later, in 2008, Smith would become very familiar with the area when he was installed as pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
The tapes were the brainchild of the Rev. John Brady, a pastor with an interest in the day’s state-of-the-art electronics, and Sheen, who once won an Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Personality for his show “Life is Worth Living.” The tape series once brought in $15,000 a week to the parish and made Pomfret’s post office a bustling one.
It is just one of the unique stories that the parish — celebrating its 250th anniversary this year — boasts.
Dogs, diamonds, demolition
A post office was housed on the grounds for a while, baseball fields bloomed there, parishioners became weekend construction workers in the 1970s to gut the church for renovation and rebuilding, youth groups flourished, the church hall was used for community events and dances, and Gelert — the Mass dog, a Pembroke Welsh corgi —regularly attended services, sitting next to the Rev. Francis Krastel on the altar.
Famous parishioners included Sister Catherine Spalding, who helped found the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth; 18th-century merchant Maurice J. McDonough, who founded the county’s first secondary school; and Confederate Capt. William Dement.
“It’s a good, vibrant parish,” Smith said. “It’s an amazing thing and has a history of being that way.”
On a mission
The parish started as a mission church.
Jesuit priests from St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Port Tobacco would visit parishioners in Pomfret at their homes, hearing confessions, baptizing babies and celebrating Mass.
On Feb. 22, 1763, the parish was founded on the land of George Clements. A meeting house was built, and based on records, it probably stood somewhere in the middle of what is now the church’s cemetery and looked like a log cabin, according to parishioner Judy Prinkey, who joined the parish in 1987 when her family moved to Charles County.
“Parishioners here have always been very strong,” said Prinkey, who was a member of the seven-person committee that put together “An Enduring Journey of Faith,” a book that commemorates the church’s anniversary, delving into its rich history — starting in 1763.
“There is a sense of God’s presence here, and God’s presence has always been there with us. We’re lucky ... lucky and blessed that we have had really good pastors,” Prinkey added.
Generations of families have called St. Joseph’s theirs, said Becky Winkler, who was born and raised about a mile down the road from the church.
“This is home, this is my church,” she said. “I know every nook and cranny. This is family. I’ve seen buildings come and go, I’ve seen people come and go.”
When the church building was condemned by the county in 1974, parishioners rallied to rebuild. Saving the church about $150,000, four teams of volunteers spent weekends doing demolition work.
The stories Prinkey and the book committee gathered revealed that the effort forged a strong congregation. Teams of 20 men spent Saturdays gutting the church, keeping what was salvageable and hauling the rest to the dump.
The women of the church brought in lunch. It was estimated that 40,000 volunteer hours were spent working on the project. During the reconstruction phase, Mass was held in the parish hall, the congregation trading in wooden pews for folding chairs.
Following a three-year rebuilding, the church was dedicated on Oct. 2, 1977.
Colored light, strong as oak
A simple country church sure, but it would get a pop of color in the 1980s when the Rev. James Scott sought to replace the clear windows with stained glass. The parish had raised money for stained glass back in the 1970s during the rebuilding, but plans fell through and the money was set aside. Over the years, the congregation grew used to the sunlit church; the stained glass would have to be soft, almost pastel, to allow the light through.
There are seven stained glass windows in the main part of the church (one window was lost when an addition was built) depicting the seven sacraments — Baptism, Confirmation, holy Eucharist, Penance, Marriage, Holy Orders and Anointing the Sick. Additional windows have designs of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the Blessed Family.
The windows allow shaded light to filter into the church, and the outdoors are important to the parish too, especially an oak tree that stood near the church’s front doors.
The tree was dear to parishioners, Prinkey said.
Before the belfry was built in 1893, the tree served as the bell tower.
But in 1989, the tree was all but dead and could be a hazard. The Rev. George Golden, pastor at the time, decided that the tree was too important to the church to just be removed. The wood was used to craft the church’s pulpit, baptismal font and tabernacle, Prinkey said.
The church is steeped in history but not weighed down by it. The parish is moving forward, continuing its work with the community, offering religious education and other programs.
“There is a fascinating history,” Smith said. “I’m not a history buff, but it’s fascinating to be a part of a good parish.”
It is hoped by parishioners that the anniversary year will bring people back to the church.
“I would love to welcome them back,” Smith said. “Life gets busy, and we forget how much we need God.”