This morning, to mark the Feast of St. Stephen, I decided to take a short drive to Rockville, Maryland to visit a place that holds some powerful memories for me: St. Patrick’s, the parish where I grew up and where I first served as an altar boy nearly 50 years ago.
It’s marking its 50th anniversary this year. I remember when it was first going up, in the middle of a vast empty field; now it’s surrounded by subdivisions. The plot was donated by the Hannan family, which gave the Church—in addition to that land— Archbishop Philip Hannan, longtime leader of the Church in New Orleans. When the family donated the land, their one stipulation was that a church be built there in honor of St. Patrick. And it was.
I remember it as a glorious place—with a soaring ceiling and beautiful opaque green windows and a slippery marble sanctuary (bordered by a marble altar rail). It was an elegant, tasteful blending of the modern and the traditional. The tabernacle, an artfully designed metallic square box, sat in a small side alcove, apart from the altar; that was a radical, newfangled idea in the 1960s. A magnificent and inspiring mosaic of the resurrected Christ adorned the wall behind and above the altar.
Now, it all looks different.
The altar rails have been removed. It looked to me as if the marble ambo has been moved closer to the people. And the tabernacle now has a place of prominence, where the presider’s chair used to be. It’s a little ornate, I think, for that style of church, but you can’t miss it.
You also can’t miss this sign near the front door of the church—the first time I’ve ever seen something like this.
The opaque green windows have been replaced by stained glass.
And the mosaic of the risen Christ now greets people outside over a side door. Unfortunately, time and weather have taken a toll; part of the bottom of the mosaic is in need of repair.
Entering that church all those years ago, I remember feeling very small in that big space, and feeling slightly petrified to be serving at that altar. To me, it had all the grandeur of a cathedral. And Midnight Mass, I still remember, was something overwhelming.
Years later, I’d revisit a time or two for funerals—including my mother’s, in 1994—and would always feel like I had come home. Churches have that hold on us, don’t they? They are places of prayer, yes, but also places where newborns are baptized, where couples are married, where rosaries are prayed, where vigils are kept, where sins are forgiven, where consolation is received, where sanctuary is offered. They are also where the greatest ongoing miracle continues to go on: the Eucharist. When you feel an attachment to a place like that, it goes into your bones. It’s why so many feel so devastated when a longtime parish church has to close.
Finishing my visit today, I was heartened to see that one thing hasn’t changed: the Nativity Scene. It’s the same one I remember from my youth.
Thank you, St. Patrick’s, for so many memories—and for playing a role in leading me to where I am today. Happy 50th anniversary. Ad multos annos!