By Claudia Mathis
CORTLAND — in Cortland marked its 100th anniversary April 7 with the celebration of a special centennial Mass.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” remarked Mary Ann Kane, a lifelong parishioner and historian of St. Mary’s.
The church was filled to capacity with more than 900 people in attendance. Bishop Robert J. Cunningham and 10 priests from throughout the diocese joined St. Mary’s and St. Anthony of Padua’s pastor, Father Lucian Urbaniak, in celebrating the special Mass.
“It was a great celebration,” said Kane. “The people from St. Anthony’s came to both the Mass and the dinner afterward. It was nice to see them in attendance. It was a great compliment to St. Mary’s because they had a hard time of it when we merged a couple of years ago. I think that it’s a celebration that people will remember.”
Kane especially liked listening to the St. Mary’s Brass Ensemble, who performed before and during the Mass. “It was a joy to hear,” enthused Kane.
Father Urbaniak has served the parish of 3,000 people for close to two years. “It’s a great parish,” Father Urbaniak remarked.
He and his parishioners were excited and happy about the commemoration. “The church is absolutely awesome,” Father Urbaniak said.
Under Father Urbaniak’s direction, the church has been spruced up in preparation for the centennial celebration. Last fall the inside of the church was painted and the limestone exterior was refurbished.
“I’m very glad that Father has chosen the anniversary to do some nice things for our eyes and our souls,” said Kane.
The parish has been celebrating throughout the year and has planned some special events for the summer, two concerts for the fall and a dedication before Christmas. In addition, Father Urbaniak created a children’s choir.
Kane said that as part of the celebration, the parish has participated in a 12-week study of Catholicism. In addition, last February, 130 parishioners took part in 3-day parish mission.
Mike Dexter, as sexton of St. Mary’s, said he is very proud of his church enjoys doing the work necessary to maintain it.
“The church is so beautiful,” Dexter commented. “The high ceilings, the stained glass windows — it’s amazing and I enjoy it so much. We think of it as the ‘Cathedral of Cortland County.’”
Dexter said that St. Mary’s has been a big part of his life. He attended the parish’s school and his parents and grandparents were also parishioners of St. Mary’s.
Dexter said that he finds it very pleasing to be inside the church. “It’s a calming place to come in to and to realize all the contributions that people have made over the years,” he explained.
The evolution of St. Mary’s is marked by the exemplary service of many individuals over the last 100 years. Kane supplied a history of the parish’s development:
According to Kane, the present structure of St. Mary’s is the third building to be erected in the church’s history.
The establishment of the first church, a converted barn, was driven by a need to accommodate an increasing number of Irish immigrants to Cortland in 1853. The building seated 275 people.
Father Michael Haes, pastor of St. Mary’s in Syracuse, ministered to the people of the area, which included Truxton, Homer, Solon and Cortland.
In 1857, following the death of Father Haes, priests from Norwich ministered to those in most of the county.
Seven years later, in 1864, Father Edward Coleman began to serve as the first permanent resident pastor for Cortland. Mass was held every other week.
In 1867, Father Bartholomew McLoghlin replaced Father Coleman. The new pastor purchased a lot on Main St. and constructed St. Mary’s of the Vale. Just before he died in 1888, Father McLoghlin had enhanced the church by building a transept with two vestries, a tower and a spire.
Father McLoghlin’s nephew, Father John McLoghlin, then assumed his uncle’s pastorate. He was responsible for purchasing new land for a cemetery, replacing the rectory and incorporating the church as St. Mary’s. He also took steps toward building a new church.
Father Patrick Donohue, succeeding Father McLoghlin, made an indelible mark on St. Mary’s Parish. He was diligent in his efforts to raise money for a new church, donating $500 of his own funds and securing pledges from the parishioners by visiting them in their homes.
Excavation began in 1909 and the cornerstone was laid in 1910. The church was dedicated on April 6, 1913.
In 1923, Father Donohue organized a campaign to build a school where the old church was situated. The school opened in 1928 and gradually expanded to include a high school in 1934. The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis from Allegany, N.Y. staffed the school.
Father William Christian succeeded Father Donohue after he retired in 1934. Despite serving during the Depression, Father Christian was able to reduce the debt created by the opening of the school. He also made some improvements at the parish cemetery.
At the close of World War II, Father Laurence Horan, pastor from 1940 to 1954, updated the school in an effort to increase enrollment.
During Father George May’s assignment to St. Mary’s, the number of parish families soared due to the postwar baby boom. Father May was known for his advocacy of social justice.
Father George Arseneau assumed the role as pastor of St. Mary’s when Father May was no longer able to carry out his duties due to illness. Father Arseneau was highly respected throughout the area.
Father John Fenlon served as pastor of St. Mary’s from 1993 to 2005. His homilies often enlightened the congregation of his studies in Jerusalem. When his term ended, Msgr. Michael Minehan was assigned as pastor. He was known for his good sense of humor and dedication.
After Msgr. Minehan’s death in 2008, Father James Tormey served temporarily. He is remembered for rediscovering, in the church basement, statues representing saints special to many parishioners.
Following the churches’ consolidation, Father Mark Kaminski began to serve as pastor to both St. Mary’s and St. Anthony of Padua in 2009.
Father Lucian Urbaniak succeeded him as pastor in 2011 and ministers to both parishes in addition to the Newman Chapel at SUNY Cortland.
Kane noted Father Urbaniak’s many accomplishments since the beginning of his tenure at St. Mary’s. “Father Lucian separated the parish council into two parish units, initiated a children’s choir and family Masses and urged a revival of the Knights of Columbus, among other objectives,” Kane said.
Kate Payne, coordinator of religious education at St. Mary’s and a parishioner for one year, feels that it’s important for St. Mary’s to celebrate its 100th anniversary. “There are so many people in the parish that can’t serve anymore,” she commented. “It’s important to see the part they played in the history of the church.”