Church's growth skyrockets Members flock to new Abingdon building as area's population booms

July 05, 1992|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church is probably best known for the little stone chapel that sits on a hilltop at the edge of Abingdon Road. The picturesque chapel that holds only 100 people was the center of activity for Abingdon parishioners for more a century.

But that hillside scene changed earlier this year, when a new $1.4 million worship center accommodating up to 800 worshipers sprang up next door to the chapel in time for the parish's 125th anniversary, which is being celebrated throughout 1992.

Set into the hillside, the spacious new church that dwarfs the original edifice is in many ways symbolic of the sprawling town of Abingdon, which has grown from a small farming community to a largely residential community of 25,000 today.

When the new church officially opened on Palm Sunday of this year, 1,000 families were registered as members, says the Rev. Thomas Phillips, pastor of St. Francis. Since then, the parish has signed up new members on an average of two families a week.

At a time when Catholic parishes in Baltimore and the surrounding county are decreasing, St. Francis is thriving. The parish doubled in size between 1985 and 1991, according to the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

From 1990 to 1991, it experienced 15 percent growth -- from 2,700 registered parishioners to 3,100 -- according to archdiocese records.

"The demographics that drive parish growth are the same that operate socially and otherwise," says the Rev. Francis LeFevre, information coordinator for the diocese, who is not surprised by St. Francis' growth.

"In 1970, there were about 350,000 members [of the Catholic Church] in Baltimore City. There are 150,000 today. All those people went somewhere," he says.

Apparently a sizable portion of them moved to lower Harford County. Today the St. Francis parish, much like Abingdon itself, is dominated by relatively new residents to the area.

Sue Walls' ancestors were among the first members of St. Francis de Sales in 1866, when it was established as a mission of St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Bradshaw. She remembers when the parish and Abingdon were still small.

"In the chapel, we knew every family and where each of them sat," she says recalling the familiarity of the 1950s. "Now there are new people moving into the parish every week.

"It's a much younger parish today," she says. "There are so many new developments going up. Most of our people now are 30 to 35, with young children."

Father Phillips agrees: "We are blessed with a lot of young families, but we also have more funerals than a young parish should have," he says, alluding to a large number of older parishioners.

While many people moving into the area today are first-time homeowners just starting to raise families, he says, there is also a segment of mature parishioners who are "downsizing" their residences as their children leave home. They are often in the best position to support the growing parish financially, he says.

In "The Church on the Hill," a history of St. Francis De Sales, author and parishioner John Poteraj points out that the parish had outgrown the little stone chapel by its centennial year, 1966, when the country as a whole was coping with a post-war baby boom and burgeoning suburbs.

The solution was to build a new worship center on the grounds in 1971, he writes in the 72-page illustrated history published last spring to commemorate the 125th anniversary. The new multipurpose center contained a hall, rectory and meeting rooms that could be converted to classrooms for religious education.

On Sundays, the space was converted into a church that seated 325 people. It was to be St. Francis' Sunday worship space for the next 22 years.

"But by 1985, we could see that the facility was not adequate," says Father Phillips, who joined the parish as an assistant in 1984 and was appointed pastor in 1985.

"When you walk into a hall with acoustical tile and auditorium chairs in an area that's a classroom during the week, it's hard to experience the awe of God's presence in your life," he says. "In the '70s, it was the trend to make good use of a building, but I think all churches have the ultimate goal of creating an inspirational space."

Fueled by that new traditionalism, plans for the new worship center moved ahead. And they grew as housing developments like Constant Friendship, Box Hill South and Laurel Valley sprouted and channeled former baby boomers, now creating their own baby boom, into the parish boundaries.

On Christmas Day 1991, 125 years to the day from the opening of the stone chapel on the hill, 400 brave parishioners showed up at the still-unfinished building to hear Father Phillips say Mass in honor of the occasion. It was a sizable number for a cold day in a church still under construction.

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