The highpoint of the centennial celebration of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Hershey was a long time coming. After more than a year of planning, waiting and rescheduling, the Catholic community in the “Sweetest Place on Earth” rejoiced in the Holy Mass marking their 100th anniversary, celebrated by Bishop Ronald Gainer on Sunday, December 5.
Twice postponed in August 2020 and 2021 due to concerns surrounding the pandemic, the solemn Mass united parishioners with current and former clergy and religious at the church on West Areba Avenue on the Second Sunday of Advent.
The date turned out to be a fitting one, 101 years from the exact day that Bishop Philip McDevitt celebrated Mass for the first St. Joan of Arc Church.
“We continue our legacy of faith where we began: at the table around the Eucharist,” Father Al Sceski, pastor, said of the Mass.
Twenty-one past and present clergy and religious who have served at St. Joan’s at various times in its history were present for the celebration.
A History of God at Work
“I think the history of St. Joan of Arc is an amazing story of the interplay of the laity, the clergy and religious, and Catholics and non-Catholics,” said Bishop Ronald Gainer as he spoke to the congregation about the parish’s rootedness in the faith and in the prolific land surrounding it.
The parish traces its history to the early 1900s, with the number of Catholics – most of them from Italy – who came to the area to work in the chocolate factory and local quarries. According to parish history. Walter Bradley, a quarry operator, offered land and finances to build a chapel for the Catholic workers, although it didn’t come to fruition.
The first Mass in Hershey was celebrated by Father Patrick Phelan, an assistant pastor from the Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick in Harrisburg, on June 23, 1918, in the Central Theater. Father Phelan named the Catholic community the Mission of St. John the Evangelist.
During these years too, Milton Hershey offered public buildings for the faithful to worship, and donated a plot of land on Cocoa Avenue for the construction of the first church. It was later exchanged for a larger tract of land on West Chocolate Avenue.
The parish was established in 1920, and Bishop Philip McDevitt changed the name from St. John the Evangelist to St. Joan of Arc, as she had been canonized in May of that year. The parish is one of the first in the United States named for the French martyr.
Bishop McDevitt laid the cornerstone of the church on December 5, 1920, and celebrated the first Mass in the unfinished church. It was dedicated on May 26, 1922, topped with a bell donated by Milton Hershey in memory of his wife, who was a faithful Catholic.
Within three years, the Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy arrived from Steelton to visit parish families and teach the children. The Sisters have been a firm foundation of St. Joan of Arc Parish, and continue to serve in various capacities, including at St. Joan of Arc School, which first opened in 1927.
The parish continued to grow, and a new church and school were warranted, built on a plot of land on the west end of town. On November 23, 1947, ground was broken for the new school, which opened the following September. Its auditorium was used for the celebration of Mass to accommodate the number of parishioners. The current church on West Areba Avenue was dedicated on May 30, 1962.
St. Joan of Arc Parish is home to nearly 6,000 people and 65 ministries. In 2020, the school moved to its 100,000-square-foot building on 36 acres outside of town. The move was made possible by an ongoing Centennial Project, allowing for the expansion of the school and its growing enrollment.
“It’s a beautiful history of God at work in the midst of his people, a history of the willingness of our predecessors to sacrifice, to want to have a sacred place, a church where God can be worshipped in the mystery of the Eucharist, in the sacraments celebrated, in worship and prayer, in social bonding and in service to those in need in the name of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Gainer said in his homily.
St. Joan of Arc’s centennial has been a year-long celebration; even longer when one considers that the anniversary year was initially planned for August 2019 through 2020. But the delay of the celebration due to Covid-19 concerns allowed for an extension of festivities planned by members of the Centennial Committee.
Among the activities: an outdoor prayer service around the statue of St. Joan Arc, a Christmas ornament fundraiser picturing the church, a summer service project donating more than 100 pairs of flip flops to the food bank, and a luncheon at the Hershey Lodge following the anniversary Mass.
“As a committee, we set out asking, ‘What can we do throughout the year to keep the parishioners involved and the centennial in their minds?’” said Betty Roksandic.
“We have a lot of members and a lot of ministries at this parish. It’s a large parish. It can be hard to meet people and feel a sense of community. Our goal for this centennial year is for people to feel that they are part of this community and understand how special it is to belong to a parish that’s been here for 100 years,” she said.
Roksandic has been has a member of St. Joan’s for 34 years, and remembers the first time she attended Mass there: It was a children’s Mass on Christmas Eve, and she was holding her newborn son.
“We were sitting in the old cafeteria and it was packed. Suddenly, in came a donkey, a sheep, all these live animals. There was a live crèche there and little kids around. I looked at my husband and that’s when we decided to join St. Joan of Arc,” she said.
Centennial committee member Barbara McCarthy joined St. Joan of Arc Parish in 1993, when she became a member of the Catholic Church. She fondly recalled the late Father Louis Ogden, who was the parochial vicar when she attended classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation.
“At our last class, he brought in people from all the organizations at the parish and told each of us that we should join one of the groups. I joined the Council of Catholic Women, and have been a member faithfully ever since,” McCarthy said. “I’ve been very involved in the parish all these years. Working for the Church has been the highlight of my life. Joining the Catholic Church was the best decision I ever made. St. Joan of Arc Parish has been really special in my life, and in my family’s life.”
“I hope this anniversary instills pride in our people for the parish,” she added.
Preparing the Way
Celebrating the Mass on the Second Sunday of Advent, Bishop Gainer spoke in his homily about being prepared to welcome Christ.
Reflecting on the day’s Gospel (Luke 3:1-6) in which John the Baptist proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the bishop told the congregation that “Jesus wants to access our minds, our hearts, our souls. It is our responsibility to make ourselves accessible to the Lord Jesus Christ…. All of us have something in our minds and hearts that is somewhat twisted and dark, and our Lord wants to make them straight and brightened.”
“During this season of Advent, the roadwork to make ourselves accessible for the coming of Jesus Christ is the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” the bishop said. “Through the power of God’s love, absolution fills in the pot holes, levels the bumps and makes our twisted ways straight. I pray that, as we reflect upon the message of John the Baptist, as we celebrate this great centennial anniversary, if you’ve been away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, make this time of preparation for Christmas the best it can be, by making yourself accessible to the forgiveness of God.”
Speaking to The Catholic Witness about the community of faith and the centennial celebration, Father Sceski said, “What’s wonderful about St. Joan of Arc Parish is that we’re a very tight-knit community. We have a diverse parish with a lot of professionals and older, long-time parishioners. They all love the parish and are always ready to support it. They’re very generous and want to be part of something successful.
“As we look at the past 100 years, we see it was a predominantly Italian parish, and we see how the faith has grown into more than 65 ministries. I want people to see how the parish and school have grown incrementally and that we’re standing on the shoulders of amazing people in the past to be where we are today,” he said. “Our efforts are about the future generations and staying family-centered in the faith.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness