Lexington parish marks 150 years of building faith

(Left to right) Deacon Paul Gorski, Bishop Barry C. Knestout, and Father Štefan Migač at Mass for the 150th anniversary of St. Patrick, Lexington. (Photo/Joe Staniunas)

Bishop celebrates anniversary at St. Patrick’s on patron’s feast day

Drawn to the green valleys and the blue hills of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the middle of the 19th century, Irish immigrants helped build canals and railroads. They brought their faith with them, going to Mass in someone’s home on the rare occasions a priest visited.

By 1873, enough Catholic families had gathered to form a parish in the college town of Lexington and name it after the patron saint of their homeland.

St. Patrick was renowned for his humility and his confidence in God, said Bishop Barry C. Knestout at the Mass on the saint’s feast day, March 17.

During his homily, the bishop said, “We’re grateful for the legacy of 150 years of a Catholic community here in Lexington, those who founded this parish community and established it, those who lived and worked here throughout the years, carrying on and expressing the faith to those around us and helping to impress those they encounter with the beauty and glory of our Catholic faith which inspires us to new life and offers us new life in Christ.”

The anniversary Mass was one of a series of special events the par- ish has held, starting with a picnic in September and including monthly meetings at local restaurants and other venues called “Theology on the Town” that featured talks from experts on theology, spirituality and the practice of the faith.

The theme for the sesquicentennial celebration, “Christ Behind Us, Christ Before Us,” was inspired by the Prayer of St. Patrick, also known as “Christ Be With Me.” For longtime parishioners, it’s been a time for reflection and appreciation.

“It’s a great parish, a great community,” said Father Štefan Migač, pastor since July 2021. “No one ever wants to leave St. Patrick.”

Starting as a mission

The Catholic community in Lexington organized in 1843, as a mission of the Lynchburg church, according to accounts written by late parishioners Ruth Holland and Maj. Gen. James Morgan. Within 30 years, the community was large enough to have its first home on Henry Street.

A church supper and donations from people of other faiths raised $3,000 for the building, still in use by another denomination. From 1892 to 1946, St. Patrick’s was a mission served by priests in Lynchburg who would take the train on weekends to celebrate Mass.

People of St. Patrick’s

Members of the Society of the Precious Blood staffed the parish from 1946 until 1979. A church was built on Nelson Street in 1953 and remains the parish’s current location. St. Patrick’s now has about 865 parishioners, along with 300 students from Virginia Military Institute, Washington and Lee University, and Southern Virginia University.

Retired pastor Father Jay Biber said those schools attract Catholics who “aren’t afraid to say what’s on their mind. That makes for some challenges. But they tend to be people who are willing to step forward, and they expect to be listened to, they expect to be heard and if you can do that, they put their energy behind everything.”

VMI graduate and newly ordained priest Father Armando Herrera is on his first assignment at Blessed Sacrament, Harrisonburg. When he was a 3rd class member, or sophomore, he went to Mass regularly at St. Patrick’s, took part in retreats, and remains grateful for the way the parish welcomed him and other college students.

“I have great love and affection for St. Pat’s,” he said in a phone interview. “Being able to be there, pray at night, just be there with Jesus in the tabernacle was some of the most intimate prayer I’ve ever experienced. And I really fell more in love with Jesus during that time there.”

Connection through campuses

Campus ministry grew to be core of parish life. Longtime parishioner William “Burr” Datz led that ministry for 13 years. As a W&L student, he attended Mass at St. Patrick’s. Following graduation, he took a job teaching elementary school in New York for a couple of years before moving back to Lexington and reconnecting with the parish as campus minister. In 2001, his alma mater hired him to be director of leadership development and later, coordinator of religious life.

By 2010, he was back running campus ministry at St. Patrick’s. “God always wakes me up at 3 o’clock in the morning and says, ‘Hey, I want you to do this,’” Datz said.

His approach has been “to recognize the talents and abilities in people” and invite them to use those skills building their own faith and serving the community. For example, a cadet charged with calling out the names of those who were getting class leadership roles became a lector.

“None of those names were any more difficult than some of the names you’re going to get to read out of Scripture,” Datz told him. “So, we’ll work through that a little bit.”

The parish added a Sunday evening Mass at the suggestion of another cadet. Datz organized crews to do yard work during spring breaks for low-income families living in the county. (“Nothing
like chain saws is going to excite a bunch of cadets,” he said.) But they also talked about how to relate to those they’re helping, how to listen to them.

Reaching out to the wider community has been a hallmark of St. Patrick’s, Datz believes.

“Our faith is like the tides,” he said. “We’re gathered to be a community, we’re gathered to pray, we’re gathered to be social, but if all we do is gather, we’re like a football team that just huddles. We’re also sent out into the world — so how do we put our faith into action?”

The pace of St. Patrick’s

Tom and Darcy McCabe were looking for a different pace of life 50 years ago when they came to live in a brick house his father owned in Rockbridge County. It lacked indoor plumbing and had a wood stove for heat. But one of the first things they did was look for the local Catholic church and have been active in parish life ever since.

“We did find it a very welcoming parish,” Darcy said.

“You could get in and out of Mass in record time in New York,” Tom said. “Down here at St. Pat’s it was more leisurely, more reverent, more attention to the liturgy than what we were used to.”

The McCabes have taught Natural Family Planning, organized re- spect life events, and celebrated the sacraments. Three of their four children were baptized at St. Patrick’s. Two daughters were married there — one at a morning Mass where the congregation, unbeknownst to them, “found themselves at a wed- ding when they were hoping for a quick 8 o’clock Mass and then back to the car,” Tom said.

“On those occasions where we are celebrating, during the Triduum for example, there’s a palpable sense of unity with fellow parishioners, a solidarity. They still feel like brothers and sisters to me,” he added.

His parish family plans to end the sesquicentennial celebration on Corpus Christi Sunday, June 11, with a procession and a blessing of the city and the original St. Patrick’s.

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