Jennifer Neville Special to The Catholic Virginian
Any church that brings people together to encounter the Lord through sacraments is a treasure, whether the building is big or small, simple or ornate. Although St. Peter the Apostle Parish’s new church in Onley on Virginia’s Eastern Shore isn’t as extravagant as St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, it is just as important and just as magnificent.
Such was the point Bishop Barry C. Knestout made during his homily at the dedication of that church, Sunday, June 24, which more than 550 people attended. The dedication included the bishop anointing the altar and the walls of the church.
The parish has 350 registered families, but church leaders said more worship there on weekends. Elder Rudy Gomez, Hispanic ministry coordinator, estimated 180 to 250 individuals often attend the Spanish-language Mass which caused the congregation to spill into the social hall before the new church was built.
Originally the parish had planned to simply enlarge the church, but when workers removed the flooring they discovered floor joints had been compromised by insects. Therefore, the church had to be rebuilt, Peter Regan, chair of the building committee, said.
The $1.1 million reconstruction added 1,800 square feet of usable floor space, said Lou Hinds, pastoral council chairman. It increased the accommodation of the nave to 275 and added a narthex that has space for up to 25 people.
With the social hall, which has space for 100 people, the church now accommodates up to 400. The construction also expanded and lit the parking lot. The parish paid for the reconstruction with cash on hand, the sale of a property, donations, fundraisers and a loan from the diocese, Regan said.
To get parishioners’ “love and the support” for the project, their input was sought, Father Rogelio Abadano, parish administrator, said. There was a common theme in the feedback: many didn’t want their church home to be destroyed because it fostered the sense of community and held too many memories.
As a result, the reconstruction blends the old with the new, Hinds said. Designed as a “traditional church,” its exterior looks similar to the previous one with its brick walls, pitched roof and original stained glass windows. Inside, the worship space has the same altar, tabernacle, Stations of the Cross, organ, baptismal font, statues of the Holy Family and two chandeliers, he explained.
“It’s a brand new church, but it kept the familiarity and comfort of a traditional church,” Hinds said. “People just love it.”
Similarly, parishioner Jane Regan said, “We wanted to keep the same loving, welcoming spirt it has always had.”
The original worship space had only a center aisle which made it difficult to navigate during Communion as worshippers proceeded to the Eucharist and then returned to their pews. Two side aisles were added in the reconstruction.
A parishioner with a knack for carpentry salvaged some of the wood in the old church to make an ambo. A window between the nave and the narthex allows the people in the narthex to experience the Mass. Walls painted a neutral color replaced dark paneling and brightened the nave. Before, it was so dark that during the Stations of the Cross an altar server had to shine a flashlight on each image, Hinds said.
Because the church holds more people, the parish has decreased the number of weekend Masses from four to three. Weekend Masses are now Saturdays at 5 p.m. (bilingual) and Sundays at 9 a.m. (English) and 11:30 a.m. (Spanish).
Mary Volz, a parishioner for 42 years and president of the Ladies Auxiliary, said, “I like the warmth of the parish.”
Donna Custis, who has belonged to the parish for 46 years, said, “Everybody knows everybody, and everybody likes everybody.”
Alex Cruz, co-leader of the Hispanic youth ministry, praised the parish’s ability to work together.
“We come together as one, and we show our strengths when we do,” he said.
How the parish grew
St. Peter the Apostle Parish is one of three Catholic parishes on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a 70-mile rural stretch of the Delmarva Peninsula. The other two parishes on Virginia’s Eastern Shore are St. Charles Borromeo, Cape Charles, 36 miles south of St. Peter, and St. Andrew the Apostle on Chincoteague Island, 30 miles north of St. Peter.
The Delmarva Peninsula, which sits between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, passes through Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. According to estimates on the U.S. Census Bureau website, about 20 percent of the approximately 44,000 people living on Virginia’s Eastern Shore lived below the poverty level in 2016. The average for the state was 11.4 percent.
What is now St. Peter the Apostle Parish traces its roots to 1942 when Father Bennet Charles McNulty said Mass in his home in Onancock. At the time, the only Catholic church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore was St. Charles Borromeo.
The establishment of St. Peter the Apostle Parish was a welcome addition to the area because some Catholics found it difficult to make it to Mass at St. Charles. For example, prior to the parish’s foundation, parishioner Blanche West could only go to Mass once a year — on Easter — because doing so meant she had to take a train to Cape Charles.
St. Peter the Apostle Parish is located in an area with strong agriculture and aquaculture industries. The parish was originally part of the Wilmington Diocese but came under the Richmond Diocese in 1975.