Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Bishop Barry C. Knestout, priests who have served there, and past and present members of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church celebrated the parish’s 100th anniversary at Mass, Sunday, Nov. 18.
Home to more than 500 members, the parish includes lifelong members and younger families. It is rich in diversity and community. Founded by Polish immigrants, the congregation is now a mosaic of European, Asian, Latino and other ethnicities. There is a strong Vietnamese presence, as families, sponsored by the parish, immigrated to West Point after the Vietnam War.
Congregants have their own history, but they share a common thread — their connection to the parish.
Pam Watkins and her family travel 30 minutes each way to attend Mass at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament (OLBS). There are other parishes nearby, but they make the longer journey to worship where they feel they fit. Besides her Polish ancestry, Watkins appreciates that the tabernacle is located in the center of the church, not in a separate chapel.
“That has significant meaning for us because we believe that Christ should be in the center of his Church, not stashed away somewhere else,” Watkins said, “The tabernacle helps all of us remember why and who we are there to worship.”
They were also impressed by the sense of community and volunteerism. That welcoming and open atmosphere led the family to participate in several ministries. Watkins participates in the parish’s women’s group, Bible study and cemetery committee. Her husband is an usher and her son is a cantor. Her then 18-year-old son hadn’t sung for a long time when they moved here, and Watkins was so taken aback when she first heard him with the church choir that she cried. Watkins also works as the administrative assistant for the parish.
“I truly feel called to be here and feel that God has a plan for me here. I am not sure what, but I am going with the flow,” she said.
‘Pastor led by example’
OLBS is an all-hands-on-deck parish. People pitch in where they can and are involved in every facet of parish life. The church does not employ any maintenance workers; instead, it relies on the generosity of parish volunteers to keep the church running. This has long been the practice.
Father Ceslaus Jakubowski, known as “Father Jack,” served as pastor at OLBS for more than 40 years. He set the precedent.
Linda Drexler, OLBS’s historian, said, “There was no job beneath him. He served as priest, teacher, bus driver, furnace stoker, janitor, and in any capacity in which he was needed.”
Drexler was born and raised in the parish and remembers when there were English and Polish Masses to accommodate the multi-lingual members.
Father Jack was born in Poland and arrived in West Point in 1918 after graduating from the University of Notre Dame and becoming a priest. He was the heart of the church and was widely known as a kind and happy man who was dedicated to the parish.
During his tenure as pastor, he oversaw the construction of a convent and parochial school near the church. He died in 1961.
“His spirit of selfless service provided those who came after him with a model of Christian life,” Drexler said.
‘Place of spiritual nourishment’
Father Robert Brownell was born in 1942 and grew up in the parish. He remembered Father Jack well.
“Father Jack would always come out during recess,” Father Brownell said. “His smile was bigger than the playground.”
He noted that Father Jack enjoyed spending time with the children and always tried to protect and help them in any way possible.
Raised by his grandparents who had eight other children, his family was on the receiving end of some of that help. Father Brownell didn’t know it at the time, but every Saturday night, Father Jack and other men from the church would leave food on the doorsteps of those in need, including his grandparents’ house.
Father Brownell is full of stories about the parish and parishioners.
“It’s the people. It’s the love their parents and grandparents instilled in them. They know how to walk with other people, how to be kind to other people, how not to judge other people, how to welcome other people,” he said.
Inspired to join the clergy himself, Father Brownell spent many years ministering in South America. He credits OLBS in part for his decision.
“All I can say is that for a very small place, they took a very small seed called my heart, and they nourished it. I think they still do that for anyone who takes the time to be nourished,” he said.
After his work in Venezuela, Bolivia and Mexico, Father Brownell is back in Virginia doing what he calls “local mission work.” He travels from parish to parish celebrating Mass whenever needed.
‘It becomes a part of you’
The church was rebuilt during the 1960s under the direction of Father Henry van den Boogard and was completed in 1968. Much of the work, including the stained glass windows, was carried out by parishioners. Their names were interlaced in the windows’ designs. Statues were hand-carved in Germany by friends of Karl Rudolph, who was the chief benefactor of the new building. The roof of the church is unique as it is shaped like an arrowhead, pointing upward.
The convent and the school closed during the 1960s, but the buildings were used to meet other needs. Under Father Jim Arsenault in the 1990s, the school building became the parish preschool and Good Neighbor Center. The Good Neighbor Center provides clothing, food and bill payment assistance to those in need. The convent was renamed the Mercy Center after the Sisters of Mercy who long resided there. It is used as parish offices.
Drexler’s sister Lorraine Ryalls is a longtime parishioner, as well as the church’s coordinator of Christian formation. She received all of her sacraments at OLBS and attended the parochial school. Though she moved away for a while and joined another parish, it never felt like home. Back at OLBS, Ryalls noted that the idea of taking ownership of their church is so prevalent, even members in their 70s, 80s and 90s still volunteer their time and talent to the parish. She calls them examples of living faith.
“When you have a parish with so many long-time families, it becomes more than just a place to worship. It becomes part of you just as much as you are part of it,” Ryalls said.
‘Commitment to youth’
Ryalls credits the current pastor, Father Oscar Paraiso, in part for the increase in youth involvement.
“One of his special gifts is how well he interacts with our children and helps them feel like they are part of the community,” Ryalls said.
Watkins agreed, saying, “Almost every young person of age becomes an altar server here. I think it is testimony to how Father interacts with them.” Like his pastoral predecessors, Father Paraiso is dedicated to the parish and community.
Father Paraiso was also affected by the sense of belonging within the parish.
“They don’t see each other as competitors but as cooperators in working for the parish.” Father Paraiso went on to say, “Parishioners love this church. They have that sense of ownership of this church. They ‘belong’ to this church. This is their church.”
The roots of parishioners’ faith, according to the priest, go deeper than the walls and ceiling of the church.
“The Blessed Sacrament Church is not just a building,” Father Paraiso said. “It is a community of believers actively living their faith in their relationship with each other and with God and (the) Savior Jesus Christ.”