Members of a parish steeped in the chronicles of three Dioceses, serving as a light during the darkness of the Civil War, and embracing the footprints of an American saint gathered for their parish’s 200th anniversary with much to celebrate in its rich history.
Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Fairfield is marking its bicentennial this year, and during its crowning celebration with a Mass of Thanksgiving on Monday, April 24, the congregation that filled the church was reminded that their parish’s greatest achievement is not in its history books, but rather in being a place of encounter with the Lord from which to go forth and share the Good News.
“In this anniversary, we remember that the people are the parish. The church is the building, but the people make the parish,” Father Peter DiTomasso, MSSCC, pastor, told the congregation at the Mass. “This church and its priests have been here to administer to the sacraments to you and to be here for you, but without you, there would be no church.”
Bishop Ronald Gainer was scheduled to celebrate the Mass, but was unable to do so due to the impending announcement of his retirement and the appointment of Bishop Timothy Senior the following day. Father Allan Wolfe, Dean of the Franklin Deanery, served as principal celebrant and homilist for the Mass in the bishop’s absence.
In his homily, Father Wolfe proposed that the parish anniversary “is not about the number of years so much, but in the richness of living faith here in southern Adams County.”
“We are nourished by God’s Word in this sacred place…. By encountering the Risen Lord in the sacraments, particularly in the Eucharist, we’re able to go out into the world to be that dwelling place of God in a world that needs it,” he said.
“This sacred space encourages us to go out and be fruitful. This is what Jesus refers to as He sees Himself as the vine, and we only have life when we’re intimately connected to Him,” Father Wolfe remarked. “We can only be fruitful by remaining deeply in a relationship with God and then taking what we’ve received over these 20 decades to all those who do not know Jesus as Lord and Savior.”
The anniversary Mass was concelebrated by Father DiTomasso, priests of the Franklin Deanery and members of the Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, including Father Frederick Clement, MSSCC, Superior of the North American Delegation. At the conclusion of the Mass, Father Wolfe presented the parish with an Apostolic Blessing from Pope Francis on the occasion of the 200th anniversary.
St. Mary’s Parish, as it is known to parishioners, traces its beginnings to the early 1800s when Catholics in the town – then known as Millerstown – were under the care of visiting priests from Mount St. Mary’s and St. Joseph Parish in Emmitsburg, Md., seven miles away.
By 1825, the now-Servant of God Father Simon Gabriel Bruté, spiritual director of Mount St. Mary’s, cared for the needs of the people in then-Millerstown, who, he noted, traveled either to Conewago or Emmitsburg for celebration of the sacraments and were in need of a regular pastor.
In the territory of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Catholics in the Millerstown area were visited regularly by Father Thomas McCaffrety, who gathered funds for the building of a church, originally built on Main Street.
St. John Neumann, as Bishop of Philadelphia, notes in his official diary that the cornerstone of the church was laid in 1852; three years later, on August 10, 1855, Bishop Neumann visited the church and conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation upon 29 Catholics.
The community of faith became an integral support when the Civil War raged through Gettysburg 12 miles away in the summer of 1863, as the town itself was the sight of a calvary engagement and the lands of Adams County were overrun with violence and bloodshed. Within a few years, the mission at then-Millerstown became part of the territory of the Diocese of Harrisburg and the Borough of Fairfield was officially incorporated.
In 1908, Father Thomas Johnson purchased property for a rectory, ensuring that Masses could be celebrated at the church weekly instead of monthly, as they had been by visiting priests from Conewago, Gettysburg and Waynesboro.
In 1909, Father James McDermott first used the name “Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The first permanent pastor, Father John O’Donnell, arrived a year later. With construction of a new rectory and the relocation of the original cemetery, parishioners moved their beloved dead by wagon to their new resting place.
St. Rita Parish in Blue Ridge Summit became a mission of Immaculate Conception in 1920 until it too became a parish in 1924. Both parishes continue to be served by the same pastor; since 1993, they have been under the care of the Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
The present church was dedicated by Bishop Nicholas Dattilo in 2000 on a tranquil slope of land overlooking the town. The current church, built as a result of growth in the number of parishioners, features several pieces from the original, including stained-glassed windows, the statues of Our Lady and St. Joseph, and the bell from the bell tower.
“What a beautiful history we have,” Father DiTomasso expressed to parishioners at the conclusion of the Mass of Thanksgiving. “We were visited by a saint who celebrated Confirmations, and one of our founders is now a Servant of God.”
“Thank you for your love of this parish,” he told the congregation with heartfelt emotion. “There have been many priests before me and there will be others after me to preach to you and give to you the love of God, and I thank God for allowing me to be your pastor these six years.”
“I thank God for our strong history, and for this beautiful way of celebrating our anniversary with the celebration of the Eucharist,” he said.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness