Monday, February 6, 2023

Centuries-Old Faith Much Alive in Small Mission Church in Doylesburg

Looming to the north of Our Lady of Refuge Church in Doylesburg is the Conococheague Mountain, which connects the southern reaches of Perry County with fertile, valley farmlands of Franklin County in the western most reaches of the Diocese.

Legend has it that some 250 years ago, Catholics would faithfully walk over the mountain barefooted to attend Mass celebrated in Doylesburg. And that trail can still be found, locals say.

Usually, a traveling priest would say Holy Mass for the faithful in a host family’s home, until in 1802 a log church was built on the family land of Felix and Sarah Doyle, whose family graveyard surrounded the church. In 1852, the family deeded the property for one dollar to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and future saint, Bishop John Neumann.

Some 175 years later, the parishioners still gather at the small, humble church where hundreds of graves of the dearly departed grace the grounds immediately around the church, which is a mission of Corpus Christi Parish in Chambersburg. There are several Revolutionary war heroes, members of the Pennsylvania militia, buried in the hallowed lawn. They fought under General Washington and most likely were with him when he crossed the icy Delaware on Christmas night, 1776. In addition, there are several Union veterans of the Civil War who fought for the Grand Army of the Republic in the 1860s. “You cannot escape history,” President Abraham Lincoln said in 1862. Visiting Our Lady of Refuge, history cannot escape you as it is truly present no matter where your eyes happen to gaze.

Bishop Ronald Gainer made a pastoral visit to the mission church on November 27, the first day of Advent, to celebrate Holy Mass just as it has been happening for two and a half centuries in this Pennsylvania hamlet. Father Allan Wolfe, pastor, concelebrated with Bishop Gainer.

On the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the mission church tragically was all but destroyed by a terrible blaze. But, the church was rebuilt in less than 200 days and Bishop Joseph McFadden, the tenth Bishop of Harrisburg, rededicated the handsomely rebuilt church on a rainy October 28, 2012, some seven months before his passing.

“This church is beautiful,” Bishop Gainer told the faithful in his homily. “It is beautiful in every way, for its simplicity, for its smallness which allows you to celebrate Mass closely together.”

Prior to Mass every Sunday, parishioners take turns ringing the iron bell that sits prominently on the church’s small portico. It was recently moved off the roof after the immense weight was deemed too much for the church structure to bear. Thirty-three-times the bell is rung at 8:30 a.m. to summon folks to Mass just like it was done centuries ago. On this rainy, raw November day, Sherry Sitman had the honor of sounding the call to worship, a sound that echoes for miles it seems.

“In today’s world, many of us are sleepwalking through life and are not paying attention to the details of eternal life rather than the trappings of the world these days,” Bishop Gainer said. “Advent is a wake-up call, a time to prepare for Christ’s coming…. What is the highest mountain in my life? What do I put at the highest part of my life? Is it God first or is my first priority, self?”

For centuries, Catholic faithful have answered the bell summons to worship where the mountain looms above this simple, small church that rests upon hallowed ground in a fertile valley.

(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness

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