On Dec. 2 Maria Einolf lit the first candle on the Advent wreath at the parish she has been attending for five decades. A member of St. Nicholas Parish in south Laurel, Einolf, 95, joined more than 300 fellow parishioners, neighbors and friends – including the parish’s former pastors – to attend Mass and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the parish.

Later she recalled her and her husband meeting the parish’s founding pastor, Msgr. Thomas Kane, when the couple had just relocated to Laurel. Einolf said her young family registered for the parish even before the church building on Contee Road was constructed.

For a while, parishioners gathered at the community room of a nearby apartment building and later at the Laurel Cinema, she said. Afterwards parishioners would get a coffee and pastry for a quarter. “That’s how we got to know each other and make friends in the parish for two years,” Einolf added. “There has always been a welcome sign to come to St. Nicholas.”

In addition to raising her family, Einolf helped wash the church linens, hang banners and served on the bereavement committee from 1978 until 2012. The committee still provides a luncheon free of charge for all Funeral Masses held at the parish. She recently assisted about 20 parishioners serving for 14 months on a committee planning special events to commemorate the anniversary – including the 50th anniversary Mass.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl celebrated Mass with Father Mel Ayala, pastor since last summer, and noted how good it felt to be back visiting the parish so soon after Father Ayala’s Sept. 2 installation Mass. The cardinal reminded parishioners of their part in a history going all the way back to Jesus.

“We’re in Advent,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “Jesus is coming, God’s son is coming and that arrival of Christ is the beginning of something wondrous.”

The cardinal told parishioners the main role of a parish is to offer a place to pray, listen to the teachings of the Apostles, build a faith community and celebrate the Eucharist. “We’re God’s family – that’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

Father Paul Hill, weekend assistant at St. Nicholas joined former pastors Msgr. Thomas Kane, Msgr. Joseph Ranieri, Father John Barry, and Father Jack Kennealy in concelebrating the Mass while Deacon Perry Iannaconi assisted.

For every parish the goal remains the same – to become “a community of faith that supports one another,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “God’s grace will be with this parish as it moves into the next 50 years.”

Zazy Lopez found St. Nicholas parish six months ago. “I needed God,” Lopez said, “I needed a home.” She said she lives in the neighborhood across the street from the parish and has been amazed by the people she has met so far – describing the parishioners as “so kind, so loving, so generous. The parish has become a family.”

Buchi Iweka agreed. “It’s a good place to worship – I like the diversity here.”

Deacon Iannaconi has been a member of St. Nicholas since 1972 and has served as a deacon for the last 15 years. “I’m honored to take part in the celebration,” he said following the Mass. “It’s a warm, loving parish.”

Parishioner Debbie Rausch joined St. Nicholas Parish in 1981 and sees it as a “down-to-earth informal community. It’s always been home,” she added. “When you walk into a place and it clicks with you – you know you are home.”

A young lector from the Mass, Esther Olaleye, 11, said she always wanted to be a lector after watching others read at Mass “because I wanted to spread the Word of God.” She has been reading at the Easter Vigil for two years.

Choir member Chuck Murnane joined the parish in 1974, where he met and later married his wife, Clare Murnane in 1980. The couple raised four sons in the parish, which they are proud to call home. “Its open – it’s a friendly place that is willing to let people join in,” Chuck Murnane said. “If somebody sees something that needs to be done – they do it.” His wife agreed, “It’s all about the people,” Clare Murnane said.

Although St. Nicholas is Father Ayala’s first parish, he said he already can tell the areas where parishioners thrive. “St. Nicholas is a vibrant parish – the vibrancy is not from the four walls but comes from the people.”

He noted a good sense of family here, a community willing to come together to worship the Lord and to pray with and for one another. “Because of that, I know St. Nicholas will be good going forward.”