St. Gabriel Parish opens centennial year, celebrating unity in diversity
Oct 30, 2019
For Lisa Antoine, everything about St. Gabriel Parish, N.W. is home.
“I was spiritually born here,” said Antoine, a lifelong parishioner, 2002 graduate of St. Gabriel School and Peace Corps volunteer. “I’ve traveled all over the world – all over the place,” she noted adding, “nothing feels like I am back home until I’ve been back at St. Gabriel’s.”
Attending Mass there again with her mother on Sept. 29 – the feast day of St. Gabriel the Archangel -- Antoine joined parishioners, friends of the parish and other former students at the opening celebration of the parish’s centennial year. Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrated the liturgy – featuring readings in both Spanish and English and a bilingual choir. Crediting St. Gabriel for providing special protection to the parish community for 100 years, Archbishop Gregory said parishioners “can confidently look to the future under the watchful eye” of the archangel who is their parish’s patron saint.
The prelate also challenged the parishioners to more deliberate living, noting that the rich man in the Gospel reading ignored the needs of Lazarus until it was too late. “This story frightens me,” Archbishop Gregory said reminding the faithful that “the Gospel cautions us to be more attentive to the Word of God, especially when it comes to the treatment of the poor.”
“Lazarus lives in our cities and in our communities,” said Archbishop Gregory. “Lazarus is wherever there are homeless, wherever there are hungry, wherever there are indigent and wherever there are lonely people.”
The archbishop said parishioners ought to rejoice and celebrate all God’s blessings and rewards to the community while focusing on God’s word calling on all to look deeply into life and seeing God’s fingerprints on creation. “Today as you mark your anniversary, pledge to be attentive, loving, compassionate to those who look to you, hoping that you are the angels that your name suggests,” he added.
Although the parish school is now closed, the stone school building where Antoine graduated remains on the parish grounds and currently houses a charter school for the District while the former students, as well as the teachers remain an important legacy of the historic church located on Grant Circle. Prior to the closing prayer, parishioners honored members of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, the religious order whose sisters lived in the convent, staffed the school, and have continued to serve the parish for nearly all of its 100 years.
Sister Maria Faina grew up in St. Gabriel Parish and graduated from the parish school in 1952. Soon, she entered the same congregation of women religious as her eighth-grade teacher, Sister Josetta Maria Preller. “She made a real impression on me,” said Sister Maria adding that her teacher “asked me ‘have you ever thought about becoming a sister?’” In her new ministry, Sister Maria would return to St. Gabriel’s School first as a teacher through the 1960s and again as principal from 1977-90, watching the parish grow over the years from a predominately African American parish to a parish with a diverse congregation, including many Spanish-speaking members.
In the late 1970s, Sister Molia Sieh brought diversity from her Asian background along with an initiative to have a children’s liturgy alongside the Mass for young children to hear the word of God. She said her ministry reflected the spirit of God’s family running through the generations. “We all belong,” Sister Molia said. “In God’s family, we look at the oneness.”
“We work hard at pulling people together because we’re all one body in Christ,” said Father Kevin Kennedy, St. Gabriel’s pastor. The parish’s entire year-long centennial celebration will celebrate unity in diversity, the priest explained.
A parishioner since 1967, Barbara Shaw grew up two blocks away from the only parish she has ever known. Shaw credited her mother’s interest in Catholicism to leading her to convert to the faith in the late 1960s while her mother eventually joined the Church in 1981. The usher described St. Gabriel’s as “a friendly welcoming community sharing Christ’s love with one another.” As the cultural backgrounds of the parishioners changed, Shaw said they have been able to accept and welcome all newcomers. For the past few years parishioners have formed small faith sharing groups that foster and build up communication and cooperation. “We are with the Holy Spirit embracing the diversity in a positive way – we are learning from each other,” said Shaw.
During a luncheon following the Mass, Krimhilde Morales, a native of Colombia, was spreading a thin layer of flan on a round wafer making a traditional treat from her homeland. Morales said she discovered St. Gabriel’s in 1991 and not only stayed but became involved in parish life “because they were so welcoming.”
Deacon Duane Clark, ordained to the permanent diaconate last June -- just in time for the anniversary year -- said he felt support from his parish before, during and after ordination. ‘They saw something in me,” Deacon Clark said. He described his favorite part of the ministry so far as serving on the altar, although he added that getting involved in the inner workings of parish has been great. The deacon said he learned to “be patient and pray” from his mentors on his faith journey such as Father Kennedy and Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., who attended and served at St. Gabriel’s while studying for the diaconate two decades ago. Deacon Clark said he also learned that sometimes one must learn to pray a different way to God in order to develop a stronger personal relationship. For Deacon Clark the challenges facing the parish in the next 100 years will be to remain welcoming to young people. “Not just get young people involved in serving the parish, but getting them to develop their relationship with God,” he said.
Former St. Gabriel’s student and altar server Leah Edwards grew up in the parish and continues to serve as a Confirmation teacher. She also sits on the parish council and lectors at Mass. The professional filmmaker is currently working on a documentary capturing the stories of faith and justice as lived out by some of the elderly parishioners. Her goal is to eventually help the young people she works with learn from the elderly’s stories before their wisdom is lost. “We have a rich parish, and we should listen to the voices,” Edwards said. She said the interviews in the documentary have taught her “God’s way is easier.” She continues to be impressed by the diversity at St. Gabriel’s but agreed with Archbishop Gregory the constant need of “worshipping God in our differences. I think we need to listen to each other. We need to do the small little things such as get to know someone,” Edwards added.
Margarita Ramos, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador 12 years ago, recalled being alone in a new land – until she found St. Gabriel’s. “We found family right here in the Church,” Ramos added. At St. Gabriel’s “we are living our faith and sharing our culture,” she added.
The parish also has an active green team run by Mark Kresowik, a parishioner for the last four years. The green team has worked with the District on securing grants to capture water run-off in a rain garden, built a community garden with the food grown donated to a soup kitchen and has plans to increase solar energy and finish a second water garden by the end of the centennial year. The improvements have not only showed stewardship to the environment, but also saved the parish money. “The biggest challenge is finding ways to work together and bridge the gaps between the cultures, and to continue to work together,” Kresowik said. “We really are one parish – not divided by language and culture.”
A parishioner since 1955, Alice Wilson had her wedding at St. Gabriel’s and became very involved in the parish Sodality. “You are always welcome by everyone here – to this day its home to me – it’s just a joy.”
James Butty taught seventh grade at St. Gabriel’s and to this day will still see his former students in the neighborhood who greet him and remember his classes. “We had an impact even up to today – particularly the education we gave them, an all-around education – and they have not forgotten that,” he said.
Kathleen Turner Thomas, a parishioner and student at St. Gabriel’s helped organize the tribute to the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, and described the parish as “a multi-cultural community of belief.” Thomas was able to contact 20 sisters about the anniversary Mass and 10 attended the liturgy -- all receiving a standing ovation for their service.
Sister Virginia Bonan remembered 68 students in her first-grade class in the 1960s but more importantly the many families who were committed to a Catholic education for their children. She recalled “the spirit and the love and the desire for education – they wanted their children to learn.”
Sister Eileen Dunn recently celebrated her 60th anniversary in the religious order and over the past summer retired from St. Gabriel’s parish where she spent 30 years – half of her ministry -- in service to St. Gabriel’s, including as the director of religious education. After the tribute at Mass, Sister Eileen said she felt the love and appreciation from the parishioners and noted, “It’s God (at St. Gabriel’s Parish), it’s God’s love proclaimed in action.”
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