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March 14, 2016 | Volume 91 Number 10


photo: The photo montage above reveals the true heart of St. Gerard’s parish. A place where all are welcomed and diversity enriches the Catholic experience.

This photo montage reveals the true heart of St. Gerard’s parish. A place where all are welcomed and diversity enriches the Catholic experience.

St. Gerard’s, Roanoke:
70 Years, Three Languages, Many Cultures: One Parish

S itting on a corner lot just minutes from the busy comings and goings of downtown Roanoke, the airport, and the interstate, St. Gerard’s Church maintains a quiet neighborhood presence with a meaningful and far reaching influence on a diverse community. Established by the Redemptorists in 1946 to serve the local black population, the parish is looking forward to its 70th anniversary this year as it continues to minister to an underserved, if changing, demographic. Born in an age of segregation by color, the parish now welcomes those who would otherwise be isolated by language, culture, or schedule.

Three Sunday Masses are representative of the communities served here. The 9:30 Mass is in English, with an African choir, and attracts the traditional St. Gerard’s demographic from the local African-American community as well as a recent influx of refugee families from Burundi and Congo. Because the midday Mass is the only one in the Roanoke Valley celebrated with all prayers, hymns, and homily in Spanish, the seating overflows into the commons long before the service begins, as children of all ages socialize among an extended family of relatives and parishioners. The 5:30 Mass is in English and, having the distinction of being the only Sunday evening Mass in the Valley, it brings the faithful from across the city whose different schedules are accommodated by this ‘last call,’ including shift workers as well as visitors in town for weekend events and conferences.

photo: The presentation of the Elect (catechumens) during Mass, presided over by Father Mark White.

The presentation of the Elect (catechumens) during Mass, presided over by Father Mark White.

With little curb appeal, this small building is home to a devoted community of faith that appeals to lifelong locals, recent immigrants, and one-time visitors. According to the pastor, Father Mark White, “the parish has a history of deep faith and openness. I think it’s probably fair to say that it is the most genuinely racially diverse institution in the city of Roanoke.”

Through the years, St. Gerard’s has been a reflection of shifts in societal attitudes and population. It grew from a mission staffed by order priests to become a diocesan parish in 1974; before the decade was over, the parish welcomed the diocese’s first African-American priest in his first pastoral assignment. Within another twenty years the first Spanish Mass was celebrated, with parishioner Miriam Ornelas as one of only 50 worshippers in attendance. She remembers when “there was hardly any Hispanic presence in Roanoke,” but now serves as a Catechist, on the Liturgy Committee, and on the Pastoral Council, along with many other volunteers from this most heavily populated segment of this vibrant parish. Gayle Danielsen, chairman of the African Families Committee since its formation in 2008, has seen yet another addition to the parish family recently. Currently there are approximately 22 families and a total of 90 people in the African community. These families now serve in most of the ministries of the parish and are active in the social activities.

photo: Father Matt Kiehl gives the Ash Wednesday blessing to St. Gerard’s parishioners.

Father Matt Kiehl gives the Ash Wednesday blessing to St. Gerard’s parishioners.

While the parishioners are presented with many needs and opportunities for service, ranging from adult formation and Bible study to visiting the homebound and imprisoned, the diversity of the population presents some challenges to the parish. Maria Morales, Coordinator of Religious Education, acknowledges it can be difficult to be one church with three languages and various backgrounds. Thus, parishioners are tapped to be ‘bridges’ between newcomers and the established parish, translating not only words but also cultural differences. Caroline Stanfill, who has worked in parish youth ministry, says the children often fill this role to bridge cultures. “Families from different cultures are brought together through their faith and by their children who form stronger, deeper friendships here than at school.” Indeed, while the city’s population has increased since the parish’s founding, the percentage of Catholics has remained quite constant, at only 4%, making denominational affiliation a more distinctive minority than any ethnic category. Stanfill notes, “there is a sense of commitment to the universal church and to each other here. We have members from all of the corners of the earth, so looking around the Eucharistic table is much like I imagine the heavenly wedding feast to be, every color, nation and tribe. We have music, prayer and worship in several different languages, sometimes all in the same Mass which is incredible. It is truly an amazing church family to be a part of and a beautiful place to worship among diverse families representing all of God’s people.”

St. Gerard’s clergy is as enthusiastic as its parishioners. Parochial Vicar Father Matthew Kiehl is grateful for the assignment, his first since his ordination last year. “It’s a blessing to be here in this dynamic parish! It’s a glimpse into the universality of the Church and it is inspiring to me to see what people have sacrificed for their faith and their families, and how their faith has seen them through their trials.”

As these diverse communities come together to improve their lives and build one parish, they now are hoping to improve the building that houses their gatherings and celebrations. The launch of the Living Our Mission campaign this month includes a program to expand the worship space and enhance the exterior. The proposed plan by architect Nathaniel MacBain would increase seating within the nave while restoring the sanctuary and tabernacle in their original locations; outside, the aesthetics and gathering spaces would be improved, increasing visibility and capacity. All these improvements are suggested in support of the church’s true mission, which Father White sums up nicely: “My hope is that the parish will start fresh from Christ Himself with the church building restoration and continue its mission of being a place of prayer and unity in the Catholic faith, especially for newly arrived immigrants and their families.”

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