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September 17, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 23

PROFILE

photo: Father Anthony Mpungu, pastor of St. Richard’s, gathered with parishioners and visitors after the Sunday Mass. The parish, established in 1940, draws many travelers heading north and south along the I-95 corridor.
Father Anthony Mpungu, pastor of St. Richard’s, gathered with parishioners and visitors after the Sunday Mass. The parish, established in 1940, draws many travelers heading north and south along the I-95 corridor.

St. Richard’s, Emporia: Older community welcomes diversity among newcomers

With its location just off of Interstate 95, many travelers stop overnight in Emporia as they head north or south to various destinations. Weekend travelers who are Catholic might find themselves at St. Richard Catholic Church on Sunday mornings at 10:30.

Emporia, a few miles north of the North Carolina-Virginia border, is located 65 miles south of Richmond and has a population of 5,927, according to the 2010 Census.

St. Richard’s, located a block from Emporia’s Main Street in the south end of the city, is paired with St. Peter the Apostle Parish at Lake Gaston, 34 miles west. The Emporia Catholic church is much closer in distance to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Roanoke Rapids, NC. (19 miles), but the latter is part of the Diocese of Raleigh.

photo: The congregation greeting one another.
The congregation greeting one another.

Father Anthony Mpungu, who is originally from the Archdiocese of Kampala in Uganda, has been pastor of both parishes since July 1.

Apparently his arrival has been beneficial to the parish.

“Since Father Anthony has been here, both the attendance and finances have increased,” said Christine Smith who, with her husband, Ed, and Stephanie “Stevie” Thomas, helped count the Sunday collection Aug. 26.

“Some of the parishioners who had left are coming back,” Mrs. Smith said. “The first Sunday Father Anthony was here, you could just see everyone’s spirits were lifted.”

The new pastor is likewise pleased with his parishioners.

“So far it’s a very good experience,” Father Anthony told The Catholic Virginian. “I find the people very welcoming. They love their faith and they’re doing their best for the church.”

photo: Ernest and Ann Thomas, standing in the back pew, lead the singing and
Gospel acclamation.
Ernest and Ann Thomas, standing in the back pew, lead the singing and Gospel acclamation.

Parishioners of the Catholic community of St. Richard’s are older. Many are retired.

“Emporia is a nice place to live if you’re retired,” said Ernest Thomas, a retired native who grew up in Emporia and left for Washington, D.C. where he worked for 32 years.

There are many motels and fast food restaurants which provide jobs, but the only other major employers in Emporia would be the public schools, Southern Regional Medical Center and local merchants.

Mr. Thomas and his wife Ann, a member of the parish pastoral council and who leads the congregational singing at Mass, returned to Emporia in 1998 when his parents’ health began to decline and he felt he should be nearby. He was not a Catholic at that time and had been raised a Baptist. His Catholic wife had attended Catholic schools in the nation’s capital growing up. She began attending St. Richard’s in 2000.

When Mr. Thomas was asked by Father Steve Cowan, then pastor, about becoming a Catholic, he hesitated he then spoke to his ailing mother, a staunch Baptist, about it.

photo: From left are Cathy Eschbach, church secretary-bookkeeper; Gertrude Kapinof, a member of St. Richard’s for 55 years, and “Stevie” Thomas.
From left are Cathy Eschbach, church secretary-bookkeeper; Gertrude Kapinof, a member of St. Richard’s for 55 years, and “Stevie” Thomas.

“As long as they believe in Jesus, it doesn’t matter,” his mother told him. “She told me she didn’t have a problem with it.”

Mr. Thomas conceded there are few activities for young people in Emporia and most young people who seek good paying jobs move away from the area when they finish high school.

There are no children among the Anglo families, but an increasing number of Hispanics now coming St. Richard’s arrive with children. Mass is celebrated in Spanish the first Sunday of the month at 1 p.m. and each Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Almost all of the Catholics in Emporia and surrounding Greensville County have come to St. Richard’s from somewhere else. Among them is Joanne Spizzirri.

“I was told there was no Catholic church in Emporia when I moved here in 2003,” she said, adding that she started attending a Baptist church because she was invited by a relative.

But just this year she drove by and saw the statue of the Blessed Mother on the lawn of St. Richard’s and commented on it with a friend who told her “that’s because there’s a Catholic church there.” She came to Mass there on Ash Wednesday.

photo: A signpost and small statue of the Blessed Mother stand at the entrance of the driveway to the church.
A signpost and small statue of the Blessed Mother stand at the entrance of the driveway to the church.

“I cried when I looked at the crucifix,” Ms. Spizzirri said. “I also saw the Divine Mercy image and Christ’s eyes were looking right at me.

“I cried because I knew I was back home.”

Although records in the 1913 National Catholic Directory indicate there was a “station” of St. Joseph’s Church, Petersburg, it is likely that a priest from Petersburg came only occasionally to Emporia to administer the sacraments. The first Catholic church in Emporia was dedicated in 1924, but Mass was celebrated only monthly at the church on Park Avenue until 1939 when weekly Sunday Mass was instituted.

St. Richard’s was established as a parish in 1940 when a priest from the Franciscan Missionary Union of New York, Father Walter Hammon, arrived. By 1943 the property was known as “St. Richard’s Friary and Chapel.”

photo: Members of the Knights of Columbus, Our Lady of the Lake Council at Lake Gaston, include a mixture of men from St. Richard’s as well as St. Peter the Apostle. From left are Ed Smith, Ernest Thomas, Dave Thomas, Clemente Lagunes Mejia, Father Anthony, George Seif and Sergio Sanchez, all of St. Richard’s.
Members of the Knights of Columbus, Our Lady of the Lake Council at Lake Gaston, include a mixture of men from St. Richard’s as well as St. Peter the Apostle. From left are Ed Smith, Ernest Thomas, Dave Thomas, Clemente Lagunes Mejia, Father Anthony, George Seif and Sergio Sanchez, all of St. Richard’s.

Bishop John J. Russell dedicated the new St. Richard Catholic Church at its present location at 117 Laurel St. in the city’s southern end on Dec. 17, 1967. Records indicate that the Franciscans had left the parish by August, 1968 and the Diocese of Richmond began staffing the parish with diocesan priests.

Dave Thomas (no relation to Ernest and Ann Thomas), president of St. Richard’s parish pastoral council, moved to Emporia in 1973 to take a job with Peebles Department Store. Now retired, he had left Peebles and worked for the Virginia Department of Corrections at Greensville Correctional Center in nearby Jarratt. The prison facility has the largest inmate population in the state with 3,300 inmates.

“I’m a jack of all trades here,” Mr. Thomas quipped. “It seems like when there’s a problem, my phone rings. Right now I try to keep the grass cut.”

Volunteers take care of the cleaning of the church and cutting the grass. There is no parish debt.

photo: Norma Vacca serves as lector.
Norma Vacca serves as lector.

“Everything but the administrative and pastoral duties is done by volunteers,” said Cathy Eschbach, secretary-bookkeeper at both St. Richard’s and the Lake Gaston parish.

“We do ‘fair to middlin’ in the Sunday collections because we’re such a small parish,” said Ed Smith. “We have a little difficulty meeting our financial obligations.”

Dr. Fitzgerald Marcelin, a physician, is chair of the parish finance council.

The Hispanic newcomers are welcomed by longtime parishioner. According to the recent parish census, there are 17 children, all Hispanic.e previous pastor, began incorporating Spanish readings in the liturgy.

“Since most of the Hispanics work on weekends, they can’t come sometimes because of conflicts with their work schedule,” he said. “When we have big activities like the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe or other major events, they come.”

Almost all of the children enrolled in Christian formation classes are Hispanic and therefore bi-lingual in English and Spanish. Children preparing for First Communion meet on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. before Mass at 10:30.

Ann Thomas, who moved to Emporia in 1998 from Washington, D.C., will lead an RCIA class for three young African American women starting later this month.

George Seif is guiding three young Hispanic men, ages 19 to 21, who are preparing for Confirmation.

Signs of future growth are evident with several infants and toddlers among newer Hispanic and Filipino families, Mrs. Thomas said.

“We have always made a point of welcoming visitors, especially from the Hispanic community,” said Norma Vacca, a parishioner since 1951.

“We used to have 40 families, but the number has dwindled as children graduate from high school.

“Emporia has always been like a way station,” Mrs. Vacca continued. “People came and went because of their jobs. It just wasn’t a permanent place.

photo: Father Anthony Mpungu, pastor, stands on the lawn with St. Richard Church in the background.
Father Anthony Mpungu, pastor, stands on the lawn with the church in the background.

“A lot of businesses have closed. Some were here with the garment and textile industry. Then we had Perdue Chickens, but they left.”

Another closing last year was Lowe’s, the only store in Virginia closed by the national chain in 2011.

Father Anthony says he has felt most welcomed by the parishioners of St. Richard’s since his arrival July 1. They show the same sense of welcome to the travelers who come to Mass on Sundays on their way north or south.

“St. Richard’s is very small,” he said. “For now, the plans are not very specific. If the community begins to grow, then we can think of having programs or activities which are relevant to the people.

“The people need to be supportive, depending on their time and their needs,” he continued.

“We are supporting each other as we make our journey of faith together.”

Parishioners help one another as Rosemary Buskirk can attest. She came to the parish in 1992 when her late husband became editor of The Independent Messenger, a local paper published each Wednesday and Friday.

“I had great support from the church and friends when my husband died in 1994,” Mrs. Buskirk said.

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