Pioneering spirit helps parish thrive NORTH LAUREL/SAVAGE

December 04, 1992|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

The Atholton High School cafeteria may not have stained-glass windows or pews, but it's a church to the 375 families of the St. Francis of Assisi parish.

The 4-year-old Roman Catholic parish has celebrated Sunday Mass at the school since 1988 because, as a new parish, it had no church of its own.

But in a couple of years, St. Francis parishioners hope to be in their permanent home on a piece of farmland in Fulton.

Through its fund-raising campaign, called "Build My Church," the parish has raised $500,000 in pledges toward the construction of a new church.

The Rev. John F. Kinsella, the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, expects the church to be completed by 1994.

Despite the inconveniences of leading a parish with no church, Father Kinsella has found a pioneering spirit among his parishioners.

"There's a sense of adventure and wanting to build something from the ground up," he said. "We've attracted an energetic group of folks."

To prepare for 9:15 a.m Sunday Mass at Atholton High, parish members arrive early to turn the cafeteria into a church. They hang religious banners, remove all the tables and do their best to create a makeshift altar and worship space.

"We try to make it look a little bit like church, but it's tough with the apple juice machine in the corner," Father Kinsella said.

He describes the parish as a young one, with the majority of members between 30 and 45, many of whom have small children. There are 500 children in St. Francis' religious education program.

"We joke that the median age of the parish is about 10," he said.

In addition to the Atholton High School cafeteria, the church also worships at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Fulton on Saturdays. Daily Mass is held in the multipurpose room at St. Francis' administrative offices in the Rivers Business Commons office park in Columbia.

A few well-chosen religious items actually give the room a spiritual quality. There's a carved wood panel depicting St. Francis of Assisi made for the parish by an 80-year-old Franciscan nun in Milwaukee and a container from St. Paul Catholic Church in Ellicott City for holding blessed oils. A hand-painted cross that Father Kinsella brought from Jerusalem also hangs in the room.

St. Francis of Assisi was established as a new parish in 1988 after the Archdiocese of Baltimore determined that Catholic churches serving the Columbia and North Laurel areas were overcrowded.

In four years, Father Kinsella has developed a strong parish community whose members have donated their talents and time to the common goal of building a church.

After it became apparent there was enough support in the community to start a new parish, the Archdiocese of Baltimore purchased a 12-acre site at routes 29 and 216 in Fulton for the church.

"It's extremely satisfying to watch a community grow and especially meaningful to see a community that feels bonded with each other and responsible for its own destiny," Father Kinsella said.

The move to a new church will inevitably increase the size of the parish. The church will be adjacent to farmland that has been proposed as a mixed-use development by county planners. If the land is developed as a high-density area, it could mean thousands of new homes and an influx of new members for St. Francis.

Although growth is unavoidable, Father Kinsella hopes to retain the closeness and caring fostered within a small parish.

"A smaller community provides a sense of belonging and a sense of hospitality," he said. "As the numbers grow, we'd like to keep the spirit small."

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