Driving to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Abbottstown takes you through some of the prettiest parts of rural York and Adams counties. There are rolling fields, farms with red barns, and this time of year, roadside signs advertising pumpkin patches and sunflower fields.
Approaching the church, you pass a cemetery surrounded by a white fence. On the fence is a sign that reads, “Welcome Home Family.”
The sign is new, installed after the restrictions were lifted last year and worshippers were allowed to return to church.
“I start almost all of the masses by saying ‘Welcome family,’” Rev. Philip Burger, pastor of Immaculate Heart, explained. “I have been in large parishes, and I have been in small parishes. This parish has always felt like a family to me.”
For the last 175 plus years, that has been true for all parishioners of this small-in-size church. The parish boasts a congregation of roughly 1,400 people, comprising approximately 400 households.
Located on Canal Road, this church was the first in America to be named in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is also home to one of the earliest Catholic congregations in America. The present church was built in 1845; it should have celebrated its demisemiseptcentennial (175th Anniversary) last year, but COVID threw a wrench in those plans, as for so many other plans.
The church is actually more than 200 years old. It started in Mass Houses, which were a safe way for Catholics to celebrate the Liturgy and receive the sacraments after leaving England and arriving in America.
Immaculate Heart was established in 1810, at the time as a missionary parish. In 1842, 20 men pledged a subscription toward building the church. A financial report dated Dec. 21, 1843 shows that $2,623.39 (equivalent to $444,642 in today’s dollars) was pledged or collected that day.
On Sunday, Sept. 19, Most Rev. Ronald W. Gainer, Bishop of Harrisburg, celebrated an anniversary Mass.
“Congratulations. That has to be my first and most sincere words to you. Congratulations as you celebrate this 175th anniversary of your parish family. We need occasions like this with all the challenges that we have to navigate, in so many different ways,” said Bishop Gainer. “We need days to celebrate happy occasions. Days filled with memories of our ancestors in the faith, time to thank God from the bottom of our hearts for the abundance of his grace in the history of the parish and in the present, and the time for us to recommit ourselves to carry on the mission that Christ has entrusted to us with the same kind of fervor and sacrificial spirit, the zeal, that our Catholic ancestors did here in this place.”
“We had more than 200 people here for the anniversary Mass. It was the biggest attendance since before COVID,” Burger said. Burger completed his second full year with Immaculate Heart in June. Previously, he was with Good Shepherd Parish in Camp Hill.
The church, though smaller than some, is bursting at the seams with activities: Evangelization activities, RCIA, adult religious education, CCD, a Cub Scout Troop, a Boy Scout Troop, and a Knights of Columbus chapter are just some of the ways the parishioners of Immaculate Heart are involved and giving back.
As part of the anniversary celebration, each family was encouraged to take home a small ceramic tile to decorate. Once returned to the church, they were installed in a heart-shaped mosaic to represent “Our Parish Family,” Burger explained. More than 300 families participated.
Sr. Rosanne Karmazin, SSJ, has been with the parish for more than 20 years. Today, she serves as director of religious education and pastoral assistant. When the church had its own school, she taught grade school for 28 years – 21 of those spent teaching first grade.
“The Mass was such a beautiful way to bring the parish together. That church was so electric,” she said. “It was awesome.”
Karmazin helped to type up the church’s history for the anniversary pamphlets. “Typing the history, and knowing people were so instrumental,” was moving, she said.
Seeing the names of people whose families were long-time members, or who were themselves involved in the church’s refurbishment in the 1970s, and then seeing those people sit in the pews and listen to the Bishop tell the history of the parish was heart-warming, she added.
Now well into its third century, Immaculate Heart of Mary is growing and flourishing.
“We are not a sleepy little country parish in the middle of a cornfield,” Burger said.
By Lauren Gross, Special to The Witness