Sept. 23-29, 2004
‘A Very Busy Parish’
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
St. Francis Xavier Church Celebrates 150 Years
MARCELLUS –– Martin and Dorothy Sennett have seen a lot of changes and a lot priests come and go from their parish over the last eight decades. After all, the Marcellus natives have been parishioners at St. Francis Xavier Church for 85 years. They were both baptized there, made all of the sacraments and were married there. “There’s only one sacrament left for us to receive at St. Francis,” joked Dorothy.
St. Francis Xavier Church, one of the oldest churches in the diocese, is celebrating its 150th year as a community. Throughout the weekend of Sept. 25 and 26, the parish will celebrate its history and longevity as a strong Catholic community. Father J. Michael Donovan will celebrate a special Mass at 10:45 a.m. on Sunday to commemorate the milestone. A parish picnic will be held from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Creek Hollow Pavilion in Marcellus Park. The event is open to all parishioners and will include a catered luncheon, games, activities and live music. Historical records indicate that the first religious service for the Catholic population in Marcellus was held in 1849 at the home of John McNally and celebrated by Father Michael Heas, with 10 people in attendance. Father Heas was a circuit-riding priest who covered not only Onondaga County but also parts of Madison, Cortland and Oswego Counties. A tavern originally stood on the site of the present church and services were held on the second floor. For more than 12 years, while still considered a mission church of St. Joseph’s in Camillus, the parish held services at the tavern for a growing population of Catholics. In 1867, through the support of the congregation, funds were raised to start the erection of the church. The old tavern was torn down and on its site the present Church of St. Francis Xavier was completed in 1868. St. Francis remained a mission church of St. Joseph’s until February 1873 when it became an independent parish.
Father Heas remained the circuit-riding pastor until 1852 when pastors from Camillus and Skaneateles took over until 1873. Father John J. Hayden was the first pastor in residence. As a church community, St. Francis Xavier has grown from 20 members to more than 2,000 over the last 150 years. Father Donovan said that there are approximately 800 families currently registered at the parish, with 500 children enrolled in religious education. “It’s a very busy parish,” said Father Donovan. “But we have a lot of lay people involved in various ministries. People are very supportive and generous,” he said. Kathleen Owens has been pastoral associate at St. Francis for nine years. She said that Father Donovan’s great sense of trust in people allows them to use their gifts and contribute their time and talents to the parish. Owens loves being a part of a small parish in a close-knit community. “I love that a small parish allows me to be a participant in people’s lives in many different ways,” said Owens. “I work with children being baptized right up through working with families making funeral arrangements. I am able to touch families at many different levels.”
While Owens and Father Donovan appreciate and recognize the volunteerism of more than 60 lay people, Martin Sennett said that he misses the sense of community he felt as a member of the Holy Name Society. “A group of men who were brought together for one purpose created a sense of community,” said Sennett. “When you don’t have that coming together, you don’t have a sense of cohesiveness. People don’t have that reason to congregate anymore,” he said. Sennett recalled fondly his days when Father Thomas Driscoll and Father Daniel Hartnett were pastors of the parish from the 1920s to the late 1960s. “I was an altar boy for Father Driscoll,” said Sennett. “I was in awe of him. He always asked us if we had washed our hands before serving as altar boy. We would tell him we had and he would tell us to go wash them again. He was a stickler for cleanliness.” Father Hartnett married the Sennetts 63 years ago. “He had a good, spiritual effect on us as a couple and as a family, said Dorothy. “He was very devoted to the Blessed Mother and St. Francis Xavier.” The Sennetts said that their children had many positive social and spiritual benefits being members of the parish. “The kids would go to the rectory and ask Father Hartnett if they could have the key to go and use the parish hall to bowl or play basketball,” recalled Dorothy. “He would tell them to go to church and say the Stations of the Cross and then come back for the key.”
Today, St. Francis Xavier is a community of many different people. Marcellus is no longer considered a farming community, but instead is a mixture of young and old, people who work in numerous and varied occupations and who come from many walks of life. It is also a community that shares a strong, common thread -–– one of community involvement, strong faith and great pride in its history.