Tonight, I was honored to preach at the opening of the Centennial of the Founding of
OUR LADY OF LOURDES PARISH and the Golden Anniversary of the Dedication of their New Church in West Orange, NJ. I was blessed to serve at Our Lady of Lourdes from 1999 – 2006. For the parishioners who asked for a copy, I’m happy to share my homily from tonight’s celebration:
Two anniversaries – 100th of the Founding of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish and the 50th of the Dedication of this the “New” Church. I really cannot tell you how grateful I am to have this honor to be here, to celebrate with all of you and to preach on this special opportunity, this opening of this Jubilee year for this parish I love so very, very much. And so I want to thank Msgr. Petrillo for this invitation. Monsignor not only knows from serving together during the 7 years that I was assigned here how much this parish me, but as the Priest Personnel Director for the Archdiocese, he even more knows how important a priest’s first parish assignment is for the priest. So thank you again Monsignor for this special opportunity.
All that being said, I confess it’s daunting to preach on such an occasion. Because there’s a rush of memories, emotions, thoughts that are attached anytime we mark a point in history. Just thinking of another timely example: this very November will be the 50th anniversary of the Assassination of John F. Kennedy and how that is being discussed and covered throughout the media. For those who lived through that tragic, horrific moment of American History (not to mention American Catholic history) the question “where were you when that happen” inevitably is asked… And we can note the sad connection to that 50th anniversary as this new Church was being constructed at that same time. Forever immortalized in that last stained glass window on that side of the Church telling the story of the Catholic Church in America we see President Kennedy’s Inauguration at the top with the eternal flame depicting his resting place at Arlington National Cemetary.
Fortunately we’re here to commemorate the complete opposite type of anniversary. This is a time of joy – a time of jubilee. But the experience is similar. No doubt we’re filled with a rush of memories, emotions. Some of you who are “lifers” – who were baptized here and reared in the faith (and in life) here don’t remember a time where Lourdes wasn’t a part of your life. For others of us, we probably can’t help but think back to our first time arriving here. That’s what’s been on my mind and heart a lot in prayer approaching this day
My first thoughts are of that afternoon, two days after my ordination when then Archbishop McCarrick gave me my letter of appointment to Our Lady of Lourdes. I’m hesitant to share that I didn’t even know that there was another parish in this town other than St. Joseph’s! (thanks for not booing and hissing or throwing Gather hymnals)That was before I knew about the “up the hill” “down the hill” stuff… and before these two great parishes came together in collaborations… I knew St. Joe’s because my former Vocation Director, Msgr. Guenther, had become the pastor there and had dropped me some notes while I was still in college and seminary- so I had only ever heard of St. Joes. Anyway – as we left the Archbishop, he had told my classmates and I to be sure to contact our new pastors as soon as we got home. I remembered thinking – I’m right down the road, I should just drive down. I’ll never forget getting off Route 280 at exit 10 – first seeing St Marks Episcopal Church and wondering “Is that Lourdes?” And quickly realizing it wasn’t and starting on Main Street and passing the Town Hall.
This was only 14 ½ years ago, but remember – this was before Cell-phones were readily available and there was no tom tom or anything to give directions. So my options were to just aimlessly drive around the town for awhile, which as a typical, clueless stubborn Italian man I did… until I went with the second option – actually stopping and asking someone. I saw a West Orange Police Officer and I asked him if he could direct me to Our Lady of Lourdes and he said “Oh sure Father” – (which was one of the first times a person I had never met called me “father” after my ordination to the priesthood) – just turn left, go ALL the way down this street – when Main ends and Eagle Rock Ave starts – you can’t miss it.
And as I turned past the Dangler Funeral Home and made my way up the street, that beautiful edifice, with our blessed mother right in the heart of the building became more and more visible. My memories of meeting Pat Paxton, Mary Cassels, Sr. Ann, Fr. Nick Figurelli and others from the staff, just taking a walk around the school, the rectory, and then walking into this spectacularly beautiful Church – the memories are so vivid. I remember that first time just seeing the stained glass – the marble sanctuary and this mosaic. It was overwhelming to the point that I remember saying to myself how didn’t I ever know about this place? And saying “wow they did this place right – there were no short cuts, there was no expenses spared. You could see, you could tell when this Church was built, at that moment of this parish’s history – the pride, the joy, the enthusiasm that the people had for this parish. You could and still can sense it in the building’s DNA.
And that was only confirmed outside this physical Church as I got to meet and know the people of God, the living Church, the parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes – they shared their pride in the parish and truly saw this building as a testimony to their love for Jesus Christ and for this, His local Church. They reminisced about the challenges they had faced to achieve this dream of theirs to construct such a structure. How Msgr. Lawlor wanted the Church to be built here on this spot, so that you couldn’t miss it coming up Main Street (even though that meant it had to be built over springs of running water – I can still remember during bad storms have to check to make sure the pumps were pumping that water out from under the building! They are still working right?)
Those are all tremendous memories. And over the next year, the pictures you’ll be sharing – and displays from the Heritage room, the remembrances of people who’ve passed away from this parish – some decades ago, some just a few months ago – who were integral parts of the vitality of this place, very appropriately will be shared. And everyone of us will want to share our own stories as well – from when we first arrived … to when this house of God became a home to us as members of the family of God…
to celebrate the joys of life;
a shelter of refuge during times of crisis and fear;
a place of comfort in times of sadness, mourning and grief.
But if there’s one caution I would offer for all of us it would be this – we can’t simply make this an anniversary of the past memories. We cannot let our own personal stories obscure what it is that we celebrate each and every time we gather around Christ’s altar as people have done – each and every day, week, year, decade and now century in this Parish. That is to celebrate, proclaim and experience Jesus Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. To welcome His abiding, lasting presence among us and within us. We have to take that reality as we look back. We have to remember that it was Jesus Christ who called Msgr. Marnell, Msgr. Lawlor, Fr. Marchand, Fr. Figurelli and Msgr. Petrillo first to the priesthood and eventually to be shepherds to this local community. It was Jesus Christ sending his Holy Spirit among the people of God in West Orange 100 years ago to come together and form a new community that has grown, and changed and continued to grow and change. That yes this parish and we as people of God in this parish have gone through the paschal mystery ourselves of experiencing deaths – but also resurrections. But that He is the one that is still calls us together. He is the one that continues to breath His Life, His Spirit into this building and into everyone of us. He is the one that calls us to continue to listen to His Call, obey His will and direct us today and always. That’s one of the main points of this Gospel we’ve just heard – Yes, we can – and should remember who went before us in the faith – that our God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. But Jesus cautions to add- “he is not God of the dead – but of the living, for to him all are alive.” We can’t simply focus on our past, but rejoice in the God of the living who is working with us here and now.
This past Tuesday at the Mass of Welcome for our new co-adjutor Archbishop Hebda, Pope Francis’ representative to the United States recalled the words of the soon to be canonized Pope John Paul II at his visit to our Cathedral Basilica in Newark in 1995. The more they came to mind all week in prayer, the more I thought it would be appropriate to paraphrase those words for us tonight – This magnificent building stands in the heart of West Orange as a powerful reminder of God’s steadfast love for his People and as a sign of faith in Christ, our ‘hope of glory.’
As we begin to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of this magnificent building and the 100th Anniversary of this Parish, may this year of Jubilee be a time of renewal, a time of encouragement, a time of joy where Our Lady of Lourdes will see itself as that heart of West Orange – called to “beat,” called to radiate, called to bring the presence and be the presence of the Resurrected Jesus Christ out from these walls to transform this community. May this place through the power of His spirit transform signs of death into signs of new life.