Behind a simple white exterior, vibrant panels of stained glass gracefully enclose the modest yet elegant wooden framework of Saint Ignatius Loyola Roman Catholic Church. But it is not the building itself, asserted Rev. Msgr. Donald T. Bennett in a Sunday homily on May 31, that constitutes the true “church” of St. Ignatius Loyola; rather, it is the parish’s dedicated and compassionate members.
“Here at Saint Ignatius Loyola, there is a real feeling of family, of oneness, of coming together,” the pastor stated in his sermon.
For this close-knit community, the year 2009 has ushered in a series of commemorative events to honor the Hicksville parish’s 150th anniversary. “We have something special going on each month throughout this entire year,” said Suzanne McCartney, a member of the parish anniversary planning committee. “A lot of effort went into planning these activities, going all the way back to early last year.”
The anniversary celebration kicked off in January with a special Mass presided over by Bishop William Murphy. Additional events have included a February cocktail party and a June baccalaureate Mass to celebrate all members of the parish graduating or receiving degrees this year. Many other events have been scheduled for the remainder of the year, including a celebratory picnic in September and, on Friday, July 31, a special celebration of the feast day of St. Ignatius Loyola.
“That day we are inviting all couples who have been married at our church throughout the years to return and renew their wedding vows, followed by a reception in the parish gardens,” said McCartney, who adds that this should be a particularly special event.
The meticulous planning of this yearlong jubilee reflects the considerable pride that St. Ignatius Loyola takes in its long and fascinating history. According to the parish website, the first recorded Catholic Mass performed in Hicksville was in 1855, at the home of a local shopkeeper; it was not until Aug. 21, 1859 – 150 years ago – that the cornerstone was laid for a permanent church measuring 25 by 50 feet that could accommodate 150 worshippers. Shortly thereafter, the newly created parish adopted the name that it bears today.
At this time, Hicksville was largely an agricultural community populated by German and Irish immigrants, whom Msgr. Bennett describes as “men and women of great faith.” It was therefore not long before this fledgling parish acquired the solidarity, which characterizes it to the present day.
“[The early parishioners] knew they were going to have to make many sacrifices to erect a church where they could worship God and be sustained spiritually by the Sacraments,” Msgr. Bennett said. “Though the number of Catholics was small, their faith inspired them to make their dream come true.”
Many of St. Ignatius Loyola’s early parishioners personally assisted in the construction of the first building and contributed generously to the church’s empty coffers. On Jan. 1, 1866, for instance, the parish recorded a satisfactory offertory collection of $1.70, and although the following week only pulled in a total of 28 cents due to “rain and storm,” the special collection on Easter Sunday that year amounted to a whopping $12.50.
In 1872, St. Ignatius Loyola Parish finally enjoyed the leadership of a fulltime resident pastor, Fr. Lawrence Fuchs; prior, the parish was served by circuit-riding clergymen who traveled, often on horseback, from church to church throughout the region. By 1891, a brand new church was erected with a seating capacity of 400 people, quadrupling the number of worshippers that could be housed at one time.
The parish population then started expanding at an astonishing rate. In September 1907, after the church’s mounting debt had been paid off, St. Ignatius Loyola was able to open a parish school to accommodate its first 104 pupils. After three years, the school’s administration was given over to the Sisters of St. Dominic, who occupied the nearby convent and would ably serve the St. Ignatius Loyola School for almost 90 years until their departure in 1998.
Throughout the Roaring Twenties, the parish experienced further expansion: a new school was erected in 1923 to accommodate even more pupils, and in 1925, the church underwent major renovations and enlargement. Two decades later, a second major renovation of the church was carried out (1943-1944).
Perhaps the most interesting episode in St. Ignatius Loyola’s history was its sudden moment of national fame that occurred 1976: that year, in TIME Magazine’s May 24 issue, the parish was featured as one of the typical Catholic communities in America reacting to the sweeping changes of the previous decade’s Second Vatican Council.
Since then, the parish has continued to anticipate what the future might bring, in order to ensure that its services to Hicksville’s Catholic community are perpetuated. Under the leadership of Msgr. Edward Tarrant, who served as pastor from 1990 to 1999, new efforts were made to strengthen parish ministries and foster greater involvement from the laity. And, even more recently, during the present decade, the parish coordinated a Vision of Faith Campaign to finance several projects in which parishioners generously responded with pledges in excess of $800,000.
Such a unique history – particularly one characterized by the tremendous solidarity of this parish’s flock – is one of the reasons why so many people have come to feel at home in St. Ignatius Loyola.
“[St. Ignatius] has always been a very family-oriented parish,” said Bill White, who has been a parishioner with his wife Carole for 43 years. “As such, this parish is definitely a major part of our lives and the basis of many wonderful friendships.”
Constance Clarke, who has been celebrating Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola since 1951 and is involved in many of the church’s ministries, reiterates White’s sentiments by describing the parish as being “a faith-filled community that is truly one big family.” When asked what about St. Ignatius Loyola makes her feel most at home, Clarke simply states, “There is just a feeling of love that pours out of this parish.”
There is certainly no doubt that the parishioners of St. Ignatius Loyola are acutely aware of the history which has shaped the parish into what it is today; and given that fact, it goes without saying that the 2009 jubilee year is a very meaningful observance, one that is marked by prayerful reflection and joyful celebration. Pastor Bennett warmly invites all members of Hicksville’s Catholic community to join the parish for any of its upcoming events.