Tradition meets growth, renewal

St. Augustine's: Founded in 1844, the historic Catholic church in Elkridge stays current with its growing congregation, which includes many young families.

April 25, 2003|By Michael Duck | Michael Duck,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Rev. Gerard J. Bowen is easy to find on Sunday mornings. Still wearing his vestments after saying Mass, the pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Elkridge stands on the new plaza just outside the 100-year- old church building and greets parishioners by name.

He says hello to everyone from 6-year-olds clutching their parents' hands to elderly parishioners who have attended for more than a half-century.

Founded in 1844, St. Augustine's rich history includes a pastor from 150 years ago whom the pope later recognized as a saint. But this church is not stuck in the past: booming development in the area has swelled parish rolls with hundreds of young families. In the nine years Bowen has served at St. Augustine, he has baptized nearly 1,000 children.

"A lot of people say this is Old Elkridge. At least here, Old Elkridge is young again," Bowen joked.

St. Augustine's is a spiritual home for nearly 1,400 families. The parish includes a convent housing three nuns and a 310-pupil parochial school that is almost as old as the church. Parishioners of all ages agree that the warm parish community, together with the tradition-steeped building, makes this the ideal place to worship.

"The people and the church itself - it's just all beautiful," said Rose Marc, a member of the parish for 59 years.

Ted Castell and his wife, Renee, who have attended St. Augustine's for about three years, see the parish the same way. "We [like] the feel of the church very much," he said. "The people are very friendly, and the church is beautiful, obviously."

Because they live in Columbia, the Castells and their 20-month-old son, Aden, have to travel 20 minutes to attend Mass every Sunday. But, Ted Castell said, "It's worth it."

St. Augustine's has seen an influx of young families like the Castells. "I guess about 10 years ago was when the parish really started growing," Bowen said. New housing developments surround Elkridge, and highways such as Route 100 make it easier for people in Columbia and Ellicott City to reach the church. The result is that "in the nine years since I've been here, we've almost doubled the number of families in our parish," Bowen said.

"It really has grown by leaps and bounds," said Polly Thornton, who has been at the church for 44 years. "You still feel at home there, though. ... The church itself is still just about the same."

Sister Suzanne Moore agrees. A member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame for 60 years, she has lived at St. Augustine's convent for 12. "There are a lot of old people that have been here for ages and ages," she said. "They just sort of pass on the traditions that have always been."

The parish community celebrates those traditions while staying current. Bowen often holds services in response to events such as wars and the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Community service is key for parish groups ranging from the high school youth group to the Sodality of Mary the Mother of God - a society including many of the parish's older women. During wartime, the church also offers prayers for its many members who serve in the military.

The historic church building adds to many parishioners' religious experiences. For Thornton, it is deeply meaningful to worship in the same spot where so many others have prayed. "You just feel all the really sincere prayers that have been said there," she said.

Ted Castell also feels drawn to the church building. "Having grown up in a church similar to this one, it just [feels] comfortable," he said. Bowen also said many parishioners have told him St. Augustine reminds them of the churches where they were baptized.

The building includes stained-glass windows from Innsbruck, Austria, and a relic of St. John Neumann, who served as the parish's pastor from 1849 to 1851. "We look at this church as a jewel," Bowen said. Accordingly, he described recent construction projects - including the courtyard - as an effort to create a new "setting" for the gem.

But Bowen does not want the building to distract from the parish's greatest asset: its members. "We're lucky that the building is so good, but our real strength is that the people are so good," he said. "While the church may be granite and brick and stone and pavers, that's just a house for the people. [They] are the real church."

St. Augustine Catholic Church?

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Leadership: the Rev. Gerard J. Bowen

Size: 1,400 families

Location: 5976 Old Washington Road, Elkridge

Date founded: 1844

Phone: 410-796-1520 or 410-796-4766

Web site: www.staugustine church.org

Worship services: 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturdays; 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9:15 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon Sundays.

Children's programs: Religious education classes for children in preschool through grade five meet from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays. Classes for students in grades six through 12 meet from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays.

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