St. Ignatius Church in Hickory, oldest in archdiocese, turns 200

September 27, 1992|By Charlotte Moler | Charlotte Moler,Contributing Writer

St. Ignatius Church in Hickory, where a once small membership was as likely to tithe bushels of rye as money, is today bursting with new parishioners and striving to preserve its traditional atmosphere of intimacy.

Its historic marker decrees Saint Ignatius as the "oldest Roman Catholic Church in continuous use in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Completed in 1792. . . ."

Sept. 27 is the 200th anniversary of the church. But for the priests and parishioners who worship here, the celebration is not only about a history, but the church's irrepressible spirit.

"Going to church at St. Ignatius is a community experience. There's a warmth and closeness in this parish," said the Rev. Charles Lafferty, its pastor since 1981. "The priests keep a high visibility, which isn't hard because there's only one door into the church, so we greet every person at every Mass."

The marker at Jarrettsville and Conowingo roads proclaims the highlights of the history of the stone edifice with the distinctive bell tower. But St. Ignatius is no museum.

"People really get involved in church activities here," Father Lafferty says. "Many people rave about our famous Christmas Bazaar, but my favorite is our Halloween haunted house.

"The St. Iggy's Youth Group kids decorate the top floor of the rectory, I wear my black cape and we have a lot of fun scaring the younger kids who come through," he said.

Another popular annual event at the church is the Fall Festival, a celebration of games and food. During the summer a bull roast was held for the bicentennial.

With his penchant for bad puns, the pastor admits that while most priests visit Lourdes or the Holy Land on special occasions, he's more likely to be organizing a trip to Delaware Park, the only place where he "doesn't feel guilty horsing around" and trying to pick a winner.

The biggest challenge St. Ignatius faces as it looks to the future is how to accommodate the growth of the congregation. The church's efforts to engage the rest of the community has resulted in an explosion of new members during the past 15 years.

Church secretary Cecelia "Bunny" Zubal, barely visible behind the boxes of new parish directories stacked high on her desk, shakes her head as she recites the numbers.

"More than 1,800 families belong to St. Ignatius parish now and the church only holds 240 people," she declares.

To avoid turning anyone away, simultaneous Masses are now held in the church and the new parish center.

"It really gets crazy at Christmas and Easter," adds Father Lafferty. "That's when you get your hatched, matched and dispatched. You know, the ones who only come to church to get baptized, married and buried."

Asked to explain what drew them to St. Ignatius, people offer a variety of reasons. For some, like Louise Wilson, sacristan of St. Ignatius for nearly 70 years, it's family memories.

"My father told me how in his day, Dr. Dance [a parishioner and dentist] would come to church after Mass with his pliers to pull folks' teeth," she recalls. "Of course, in those days, there was no Novocain and you could hear the screaming all over the county."

Others like the tradition. "It's a churchy church," says Jerry Strickroth, who heads up the maintenance crew. "Straight back pews and hard kneelers. That's what I like."

Many share the feeling of long-time parishioner Doris Wheeler, "When I moved to Harford County, I tried another church. But when I came here [in 1972], I felt like I was home."

The history of St. Ignatius Church is a story of struggle -- first religious repression, then lack of money, and later structural flaws that resulted in the temporary closing of the church.

It began with the Jesuits, who were among the first Maryland settlers. Since Catholics were not permitted by Maryland law to build places of worship until after the American Revolution, a room was set aside in a private home where an itinerant priest would stop occasionally to say Mass for the community.

By 1743 in present day Harford (then still Baltimore) County, the Jesuits established the Mission of St. Joseph in Churchville. The Rev. Charles Sewall, S.J., was in charge of the mission in 1779 when he bought two acres in Hickory which would become the site of St. Ignatius Church.

Construction began in 1786 and was funded largely by Col. Ignatius Wheeler Jr., for whose patron saint the church is named. The first Mass was celebrated on Sept. 27, 1792.

In his history of the church, county historian Clarence Joerndt wrote in "Saint Ignatius, Hickory and Its Mission" that the pewholders as of Jan. 1, 1819 numbered 36. Pew rents started at $12 per year but could be paidin commodities -- five bushels of rye or 15 cords of wood.

One of St. Ignatius' most charming features is the organ that dominates the gallery above the entrance. Built in Boston in 1884, the instrument resembles a calliope. Five years ago, it was disassembled, shipped to Iowa for restoration, then reassembled and tuned for a special dedicatory recital.

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