|June 13, 2011 | Volume 86, Number 17|
St. Mary of the Presentation, Suffolk: Never just one event on a Sunday
On any given weekend there is “a lot going on” at St. Mary of the Presentation Church in Suffolk.
For example, on Divine Mercy Sunday (this year May 1) the parish’s Father Tommy Nee Social Hall overflowed with a youth ministry plant sale, a first communion luncheon, and a birthday celebration for their favorite parochial vicar.
Before and after Mass there were the presentation of a scholarship from the Women’s Club, a prayer in honor of the beatification of Pope John Paul II, and the blessing of two new vestments. It was indeed a very busy day.
“You can never find a perfect time for just one event on a Sunday here,” said St. Mary’s pastor Father Piotr (Peter) Bialkowski.
The enthusiasm of this “small town” parish in Virginia’s “largest city” was likely similar to that which drove a newly formed women’s’ club to start the church in 1908. (Suffolk’s area has 429.1 square miles, making it the largest land mass of any Virginia city. The population is 84,585.)
It is said that 10 Catholic families had been worshipping in neighboring homes, and the women began going door-to-door for donations to build a church.
By November 1909 the lot at the corner of Smith and Broad Streets was purchased for $500, a 100-seat church was built and dedicated by Bishop Augustine Van de Vyver, and membership had quadrupled to more than 40 families.
Prior to 1909, records from St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Portsmouth show that local priests had been attending to the needs of Suffolk and the surrounding territory as early as 1804. The earliest Mass recorded, however, was not until 1873 in the Suffolk home of Mrs. Elfreda Holland Lewis.
The present church was dedicated in September 1954, and shortly thereafter the original church was torn down and replaced with the current two-story parish hall.
Joan Gray, who grew up in Our Lady of Nazareth Parish in Roanoke, moved to Suffolk 58 years ago with her new husband when they were just “kids in our teens.”
“When I came here they were building the new church,” said Joan, “and I was hoping my first born would be the first to be baptized here. But we just missed it.”
As the parish grew, so did its reach into surrounding communities. St. Jude’s Church in Franklin started as a mission of St. Mary’s in 1948 under Father Julius Schmidhauser, pastor.
In 1953 the Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague in Wakefield was dedicated across from the Virginia Diner through the influence of Larry Monahan, then owner of the Virginia Diner.
In 1984 Good Shepherd in Smithfield was established as a mission of St. Mary’s as the first Catholic presence in Isle of Wight County.
All three Catholic parishes continue to remain connected in a number of ways. St. Mary’s and Good Shepherd share their pastor and come together for retreats and Youth Ministry activities. St. Jude’s and St. Mary’s share support of a twin parish in Haiti.
Late one October night in 2005, a fire almost took St. Mary’s down. A man had wandered in, helped himself to a number of things, including “a taste of sacramental wine,” then set a fire to cover his tracks.
“We were just 10 minutes from losing the entire structure,” said parishioner Mike Bibb, past Grand Knight of Knights of Columbus Suffolk Council 7363.
A trail of stolen items quickly led authorities to the man’s arrest, but it took six months of restoration and tens of thousands of dollars before the congregation was back in the building.
Father Bialkowski came to the United States on July 4, 2004. Previously a priest in his native Poland for four years, he had heard of the shortage of priests in the Diocese of Richmond during a visit to Virginia Beach in 2002.
Upon returning to Poland he asked his Bishop for permission to serve as a priest in Virginia.
After serving as parochial vicar at Blessed Sacrament in Norfolk and then at Prince of Peace in Chesapeake, he arrived as Pastor of St. Mary’s on June 13, 2006.
“I wish every priest had the opportunity to go to another country to experience their way of worshiping God,” said Father Piotr. “Once again, you become a person with an open mind.”
A friend of Father Piotr’s has since followed in his footsteps. During a visit to Poland Father Piotr convinced Father Jarek (Yar-ek) Nowacki that he too was needed in the Diocese of Richmond.
“At home in Poland we had 800 priests in the diocese,” said Father Jarek. “So I come to visit here and I pray before I ask my Bishop should I come here.”
Following an invitation from Bishop DiLorenzo, Father Jarek arrived at St. Mary’s July 4 last year.
Both priests have been sharing priestly duties among the two parishes of St. Mary’s and Good Shepherd. They have also shared the diversities of their culture with an enthusiasm that has become a real blessing in the community.
“For our ‘70’s Nite’ party Father Jarek taught us a Belgian folk dance he’d learned at World Youth Day,” said Youth Ministry Coordinator Donna Riley.
Father Jarek is being reassigned to St. Edward Parish in Richmond July 1.
St. Mary’s Divine Mercy Cenacle, a four-year old lay outreach ministry with a special devotion to The Divine Mercy, recently bestowed a gift befitting both priests’ enthusiasm, love, and heritage.
“They are a strong group with a special devotion,” said Father Piotr. “I think because both of us are Polish and Pope John Paul II was the one that spread and accepted officially The Divine Mercy, the group bought for us the vestments.”
Father Piotr describes the community as “a very traditional parish, a very loving parish — a parish that wants to give to the next generation the faith based on tradition and scripture.”
Drawing as many as 320 registered families from as far as North Carolina and throughout Suffolk this small town church has become a haven for people escaping life in the city.
“We’re a community church here,” parishioner Dorothy Cogswell said. “I travel a lot and have been in a lot of big churches and can’t wait to get back to St Mary’s.”
Paul Fletcher agrees. President of the parish pastoral council and coordinator of the church’s Haiti ministry, he says at one time he was a stereotypical “45-minute Catholic.”
“I would come in, drop my offering, and leave,” said Paul. “But the fact that this parish is small turned out to be a good thing for us.”
The small size of the parish though hasn’t hindered its ability to do big things. In addition to its social justice programs that include Pastoral Care, Respect Life, and Legislative Advocacy, St. Mary’s is twinned with Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Belladere, Haiti, 40 miles northeast of Port-Au Prince.
Over the past several years the parish has assisted Father Duportal Michenet with the resources to pay teachers, operate the school, and to pave roads. They are also in phase 3 of building a new school.
“For a church this size to come up with the money like we do is amazing,” says Paul, “and I think it’s important to let people know where the money goes.”
One program unique to this twinning program is the “Backpack to Haiti” program. Since 2008 parishioners have collected 146 boxes filled with gently used backpacks and school supplies that are sent to the school in Haiti each year.
All the ministries within the church support the Haiti program in some way, and the same can be said of the Knights of Columbus, the Youth Group, and the Women’s Club in particular.
In addition to being primarily responsible for the ushers and greeters ministry, the Knights of Columbus Suffolk Council 7363, supports the church through annual programs for the youth, seasonal projects such as their annual Christmas Tree Sale and Halloween Party, and the February blood drive at the request of the Red Cross.
The Youth Ministry is involved in all aspects of parish life. By performing service both in the parish and the community, the teens find various ways to live out the principles of their Catholic faith.
“Recently a few of our confirmed youth stepped up to help us as catechists,” said Joan Nagy, coordinator of Christian formation. “The younger kids love it. These students are excellent role models.”
As for the Women’s Club, it continues to infuse a spirit of service that predates the church itself. Whether raising money through yard sales, wine tastings, and BBQ Chicken fundraisers; helping support a local women’s shelter, or creating a reception for the bereaved, this vibrant group of women offers fellowship, support and outreach to women while meeting the specific needs of the parish whatever they may be.
“I love this community, it has changed me a lot,” said Father Piotr. “As a Polish priest, I have had to change my thinking in a more American way.
“Though in each country we share many common things, there are also a lot of differences — that is the richness of our Catholic faith.”
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