It’s been 125 years since Capuchin Father James A. Walsh spotted the perfect place on Ocean Avenue to plant a church for the hard working community of Irish immigrants who toiled in the glittering mansions and hotels of Long Branch, then the nation’s premier resort.
Though he may have walked the dunes to seek out the location on the corner of Ocean Avenue and North Lake Drive, given the times, it’s more than possible that Father Walsh zeroed in on the tract dovetailed between Lake Takanassee and the Atlantic Ocean from the elevated vantage point of a horse drawn carriage.
And indeed, it was from just such a vantage point Sept. 18 that Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., beheld the throng of contemporary parishioners gathered for Mass and the gala luncheon that would draw the year-long celebration of the anniversary year to a close.
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Cries of “here comes the horse and carriage,” resounded as the bishop, accompanied by Father Charles B. Weiser, St. Michael’s pastor, rolled up to the church and disembarked in a homage to the past that stirred emotion in many parishioners, especially long-time ones such as Cathy Stewart.
Stewart, whose family has been actively involved in parish life in the West End landmark for 80 years, called the arrival, the Mass and the social that followed a “beautiful way to mark the end of a year spent celebrating how we began, how we grew and where we are today,” and commended the planning committee for going out of its way to involve young people in the celebration.
“By involving the youth of the parish,” Stewart said, “we are pointing hopefully and prayerfully to our future.”
Vineyard of Faith
Times have changed since Father Walsh settled on the location for what would become St. Michael Church. Yet through sweeping storms, world wars and smaller conflicts, the Great Depression, population booms and busts, St. Michael Parish has stood strongly on the high ground of faith, something Bishop O’Connell attested to in his homily at the Anniversary Mass.
“Certainly those of us who make up this parish community today have an easier time of it than that first Irish community of laborers – Irish Catholic domestic workers – for whom this ‘mission Church’ was the source of strengthening their faith,” the bishop said.
Comparing those early arrivals to laborers in the Gospel who came to the Lord’s vineyard at dawn, he spoke of the other faithful who followed over the decades at “nine, at noon, at three and here we stand at five, a vibrant church where our members thrive and passionately pursue the Catholic faith.
“Today, the Lord invites us to look back on 125 years and to recognize that each successive generation of parishioners has received his generous love and mercy and grace, each in the measure needed,” Bishop O’Connell said.
“And we celebrate our history, from the dawn of the day until now, and we pray to God to continue to love and bless this vineyard of ours as he has throughout its 125 year history.”
Days after the culminating solemnities at festivities, Stewart and Father Ian Trammell, who grew up in the parish, spoke of the profound affect St. Michael Parish had on their own faith development.
Stewart, whose husband, Brian, and children, Christopher, 13 and Liam and Nora, 8, are actively involved in parish life, spoke of her “continuing love and support of St. Michael because of the many occasions I have had there to strengthen and deepen my understanding of my Catholic faith.”
She noted with pride that all three children participated in the anniversary Mass.
Father Trammell, pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, called his childhood and youth experiences in St. Michael “totally formative. This was where I learned the faith and had a real opportunity to (grow in it).”
“The worship drew and sustained me,” he said. “There were beautiful and moving liturgies and a beautiful (church) and strong support of the (parishioners). I’m very proud to call St. Michael my home parish.”
A vibrant present
Ask Cathy Stewart to talk about why her family is so involved with St. Michael Parish and she responds by talking about the opportunities that abound there: from worship, to ministry to a sense of community.
“I am a Stephen Minister and I belong to the ‘Why Catholic/Arise’ small group that meets on Sunday evenings for six weeks in the fall and again in the spring. As a family we volunteer with St.Vincent de Paul Society. Brian is the photographer who captures many of the events we have at St. Michael’s. You can find them on St. Michael’s website.”
She’s especially thankful for the key lesson her children have learned there, that “Catholicism is more than just attending Mass on Sundays. Under Father Weiser’s direction, we have been able to join small groups and different ministries. I consider myself blessed to have so many opportunities.”
It’s parishioners like the Stewart family that Deacon Eugene Somma has in mind when he talks about the present and the future of St. Michael Parish. It’s clear that he does so from a vantage point of growing numbers and activity.
“This is an extremely active parish,” he said. “We have something for everyone. We have 440 kids in religious education. We have an active youth group. We have 70 members in our separated, widowed and divorced group.”
“The present membership reflects an interesting trend in growth,” Deacon Somma said. A 1971 document listed 671 families. Now, the number of registered families is about 2,700 from 20 different zip codes, drawn, Deacon Somma said, by the beauty of the church and the way Father Weiser and the staff work to meet their needs.
“Whether it is Altar Rosary or a Bible study group of programs such as Arise,” he said, referring to RENEW International’s ARISE Together in Christ process of spiritual renewal and evangelization,” he said. “We are always (looking) to find (programs) that people want.”
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