'Small but mighty' Hilltop parish celebrates 160th anniversary
Jul 23, 2019
On a stretch of Port Tobacco Road winding through the Charles County countryside, a sign noted that St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Hilltop, Maryland, established in 1859, was “Celebrating 160 Years in His Service.”
A few feet away, early on that sweltering Sunday morning, Mac Greer stood outside the small church, greeting people as they arrived for Mass. Greer, 66, a retired heavy equipment operator for the Pepco electric company, noted that he is a lifelong parishioner at St. Ignatius and grew up on a tobacco farm, where he now raises blueberries and asparagus.
That church, he said, “means everything to me. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I find security.” And he added, “I guess my soul is here. All my family and friends who came before me are here, across the street” in the parish cemetery, which also has graves alongside the church, with some dating to the 1860s.
About 75 people, ranging from senior citizens to families with small children, gathered in the church to welcome Washington Archbishop Gregory, who arrived that morning to celebrate a Mass commemorating the 160th anniversary of when St. Ignatius parishioners, under the leadership of their first pastor, Jesuit Father Samuel Barber, built the church.
In the parish bulletin, Father Aaron Qureshi, the new administrator of St. Ignatius and of its sister parish, St. Catherine of Alexandria in McConchie, wrote that St. Ignatius Church “still stands as a testimony to the faith of those who have gone before us, and to the vibrancy of the community that worships there today.”
At the Mass, Archbishop Gregory noted that he was visiting them as their new archbishop, joined by their new priest administrator, but “the thing we celebrate today is not newness – it’s your faithful fidelity to this community for 160 years.”
In his opening remarks, Father Qureshi noted that Jesuit circuit riding priests once ministered on horseback to Catholic communities in Southern Maryland, including at Hilltop, and the lay faithful there walked for miles to attend Mass in that church.
“Here we are today, faithful to that heritage passed on to us,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory in his homily noted that the parishioners there today continued a legacy of faith symbolized by those from past generations who are now buried in the parish cemetery.
Since his installation as Washington’s new archbishop two months ago, Archbishop Gregory has been a circuit rider himself, fulfilling the promise made at his opening press conference that his main priority would be meeting the priests and lay faithful of the archdiocese. In recent weeks, he baptized a baby during Mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Silver Spring; celebrated a Spanish language Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington; celebrated parish Masses at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill and St. Hugh’s in Greenbelt; and received the pallium, the symbol of his office at archbishop, at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.
At the end of the Mass at St. Ignatius in Hilltop, Archbishop Gregory and Father Qureshi posed for a photo around the altar with the people who attended the Mass, and afterward the archbishop greeted parishioners outside the country church.
St. Ignatius – one of the smallest parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington – includes about 50 registered households. One weekend Mass is celebrated at the church at 8:30 a.m. Sundays, and then afterwards, parishioners gather in the parish hall for a potluck breakfast.
“This is the most loving, welcoming community of people we’ve ever come across. Because there’s fellowship after Mass, you get to know everyone,” said Susan Collins, who attends the parish with her husband Rob and their four children. She serves on the parish council, and her husband volunteers on the finance council. That morning, their son Luke, who is 5, helped bring up the offertory gifts at the Mass.
Some people at the Mass wore grey T-shirts with the parish’s anniversary theme, “Faith, Family, Fellowship,” which was also printed on bumper stickers along with a photo of the church.
“This is my family, and I’m truly blessed,” said Keith Smoot, an iron worker who serves on the parish council, while his wife Julie serves on the finance council. They have five children, including three who were altar servers for the anniversary Mass.
Arlene Conover, a lector at the Mass, echoed that point. “We’re a very big family, that’s what I love most. I felt that from the beginning. Everyone watches out for each other, helps each other and supports each other.”
She said if someone is sick, fellow parishioners provide meals for them and pray for them.
That morning, St. Ignatius parishioners enjoyed a special breakfast including omelets, grits, sausage, ham, shrimp, French toast, pancakes and a variety of fruits and pastries catered by Attention 2 Details, a business run by Gloria Riley, a St. Catherine’s parishioner who helps coordinate A Grateful Plate, a joint effort between the two parishes to provide meals to those in need in their community.
“We work together. We pray together. We do everything together,” Riley said of the faith of Catholics in that community.
A parish history compiled for the anniversary noted that in 2018, St. Ignatius parishioners served more than 1,200 meals through the Meals of Hope program and distributed 500 bags of groceries at the Shelves of Hope food pantry, while also providing backpacks with school supplies, Christmas food and gifts, and winter coats to those in need. St. Ignatius also has a monthly collection for women and their children at the Angel’s Watch Shelter operated by Catholic Charities in Hughesville, which serves families affected by homelessness and domestic violence. An annual yard sale and raffle in the fall raise money for the parish.
Social activities there have included wine tastings, family picnics at a nearby park, and outdoor movie nights.
John Minichino served as an usher that morning and also cuts the grass along the church and cemetery and volunteers at the food pantry with his wife Mary. They’ve been parishioners at St. Ignatius for 45 years. “It’s a wonderful, loving church,” she said. “We love our faith, and we love each other.”
Debbie Hancock, a St. Ignatius parishioner for more than 30 years, noted, “It’s a small parish… but we’re a mighty bunch.”
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