History of St. Francis Of Assisi Parish and School

St. Francis of Assisi Parish traces its beginnings back to a small track of land and a house owned by the Conventual Franciscans in the year 1914. This house in Athol Springs, N.Y. became a friary and novitiate in 1920 for the province of St. Anthony of Padua. A large front room was converted into a chapel. Since there was no church within four miles, Catholics received permission from Bishop Turner to celebrate the Eucharist there. The first public Mass was celebrated by Fr. Casmir Cwiklinski in May of 1924.

The faithful of the area desired to officially establish a parish, with the chapel of the friars as a parish church. Signatures on a petition were presented to Bishop Turner in 1926. During this same time, the building of St. Francis High School was completed. In 1928, Fr. Justin Figas, Minister Provincial of the Friars of St. Anthony Province, was summoned by the bishop to establish a parish in Athol Springs. A decree of Bishop Turner dated Feb. 17, 1929 officially established the parish. The chapel of the High School was to serve for a time as the Parish Church. The parish was entrusted to the care of the Conventual Friars of St. Anthony Province. The first pastor was Fr. Thomas Wieprecht. Elected as first trustees were Bonaventure Werdein Sr. and William T. Hill (succeeded 4 years later by Simon Schwartzott).

Notable from March 1941: the quota of the parish for the Diocesan Catholic Charities Appeal was placed at $330.75 and for Urgent Diocesan Needs at $75. And from June 14, 1942: Added to the 7:00am and 9:00am Masses on Sunday were two “Low Masses” at 11:00am and Noon.

Succeeding as second Pastor in Sept. 1942 was Fr. Victor Balcerak. This appointment was approved by Bishop Aloysius A. Duffy. In Jan. 1944 an Altar and Rosary Society was formed, naming Lucille Reith as first president. In December of 1944 the Holy Name Society with Thomas McGuire as president was formed.

At the urging of Bishop John O’Hara a temporary parish school was opened in the frame building belonging to the Franciscan Friars at the corner of Big Tree Road and Route 75. In Sept. of 1947 first and second grade were opened to 32 children. The school was staffed by Sr. M. Florence and Sr. M. Reginald from the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph.

Fr. Seraphim Stachowicz became third Pastor in Sept. 1948. Increased number of students brought about plans for a new school. A building fund was initiated. Property adjoining the High School campus was purchased for $4,105.65.

Ground breaking took place in April 1953. Completion and full use of facility by January 1954. The school capacity was for 163 students.

In 1958 Bishop Joseph A. Burke granted permission to purchase property adjoining the school grounds for $2,200. Church-rectory-Sisters’ Convent complex was to be built at a cost of $272.000. Ground was broken Feb. 2, 1959. The rectory was occupied on Sept 3, the Sisters’ convent on Nov. 1, 1959. The cornerstone of the church was blessed on Oct. 4, 1959 by Aux. Bishop Leo R. Smith. The first mass celebrated in the church was at midnight, Christmas, 1959. The ceremonies of dedication took place on May 8, 1960 by Bishop Burke. Population of the parish listed at this time as 344 families, 1299 individuals.

Fr. Bruno Dobala was appointed as third Pastor in Aug. 1960. These were years of continued growth. Grounds were leveled and roads repaired, new sewer lines laid, the sanctuary received a new carpet and a new altar facing the people.

Fr. Rufinus Niedzwiecki assumed his task as fourth Pastor in Sept. 1969. After the “burning of the mortgage”, a new social center and additional classrooms were planned. Groundbreaking took place Oct. 8, 1972. Funds were accumulated especially through Wed. Night Bingo, a parish Festival, and the Mortgage club. Bishop Edward Head blessed the building on June 10, 1973. For many years to come it was one of the finest buildings of its kind in the area. To more efficiently promote events for the benefit of the parish, a “Combined Societies” was formed.

A number of changes and improvements took place during the pastorship of Fr. Timothy Zientek, which began in July 1976. Planning for a Parish Council to replace the combined Societies began in 1976, and formed its Constitution in the Spring of 1977. First president was Tad Obark, and first Vice-President was Henry Winkler. In October 1976 Midnight Bingo (later called Vegas Bingo) was introduced, as well as the blessing of animals on the Feast of St. Francis. In October 1978 volunteers took a general census of our parish, and in January 1979 the Appreciation Dinner was initiated.

Among liturgical highlights, in November 1977, Communion in the hand was implemented, and confessionals were reconstructed to accommodate the new face-to-face procedure. Fr. Tim and his associates began regularly celebrating Holy Eucharist at the neighboring retirement residences. This practice continues today, with a Saturday celebration at Bethel Estates. The Mass of Anointing was celebrated for the first time, and became an annual celebration.

The year 1979 marked the church’s Golden Jubilee, with bishops Edward Head and Pius Benincasa present at the Eucharistic Celebration on May 19, which was followed by a festive dinner-dance at the Social center.

When Fr. Blase Wegierski took over as pastor in August of 1982, many construction and remodeling projects were necessary; the parking lot was paved, windows in the school and rectory were replaced, school rooms were carpeted. Utilizing the proceeds from the Sweepstakes, an addition to the Social center was built, giving an extra meeting room (later to be known as the computer room) and a very large storage room, needed extra tables, chairs and other equipment.

First efforts were made to introduce RCIA. Planning for Renew began in 1984. Fr. Matthew Swizdor gave us the first experience of a Healing Mass. In the Fall of 1985 the Renew Process was introduced and carried on for three years according to Diocesan guidelines.

Fr. Victor Maksimowicz, who became seventh pastor in 1985, continued the efforts to maintain parish buildings in a sound and attractive condition; the church was painted, and so were the rectory and the convent. A new roof was put on the rectory, school and convent. Through the effort of societies and private donations, a local artist attractively painted all statues in the church. A new sound system was installed in the church, and computers were purchased for school instructions and use at the rectory.

Notable from March 1989, with Fr. Victor still as the church’s pastor and over 1,600 families in our parish, $28,100 in cash and pledges was raised for the many tasks ahead and goals to achieve. School enrollment is listed at 186 students at this time. In this year, 1989, Fr. Victor was transferred and eventually went to St. Clement Parish in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1989, Father David Stopyra became the eighth pastor of St. Francis Parish. Most notably in his two terms of service, was the implementation of the Liturgy of the Word for children. Continued still today, the children of the parish are invited to share and learn about the Word of God at the 10 am Mass on Sundays. Under the direction of a volunteer from Religious Education, the children gather into the Sacristy, are recognized by the presiding priest, and sent with the group leader to listen to the readings of the day, reflect on it, and take an activity related to the message of God home with them.

Father David undertook the task of repairing the flooding problem found in all the parish buildings. He also redecorated the grounds with many plantings of rose bushes that bloom beautifully along side the church and rectory still today. To enhance the celebrations of the Christmas and Easter Seasons, he expanded the decoration committee and the supplies to make the church more aesthetic and beautiful. With the parish enrollment listed still at 1600, and the school enrollment at 65, Father David left St. Francis in 1997, and was assigned as Pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Taunton, Massachusetts, where he still resides.

Succeeding him in 1997 as the ninth Pastor of St. Francis Church, was Father Steven Frenier. Fr. Steven was responsible for many improvements to the church and parish buildings. Leaking roofs was the main nemesis to all the buildings. Fr. Steven had the proper attention and repairs completed to rectify this problem.

Diocesan records show parish enrollment at 1600 families in 2000 and the school enrollment then was at 60 students. Unfortunately, due to the continuously declining enrollment, the School was closed that year after 53 years of educating the young members of our area. After the closing of the school, Fr. Steven greatly expanded the staff of the Religious Education Department to fully accommodate the needs of the children of the parish.

With exceptional business skills, one of Father Steven’s great abilities is to raise money. He spearheaded a major renovation of the church in 1999, implementing a half million-dollar project to beautify the inside of the church. The sacristy floor was elevated, the back altar brought forward to serve as the sacrificial table, the beautiful gold, ornate tabernacle moved from the left side altar to the back of the main altar, and the dark wall paneling removed to lighten the entire sacristy area. Three large mural paintings grace the back of the main and side altars, depicting The Crucifixion, TheWord of God, and The Baptism of Jesus. A new, large Baptismal Font was installed at the right side altar, to allow for submersion if desired by a Baptismal Candidate.

New waist-high paneling was installed around the circumference of the church to enclose the heating vents; and new ceramic tile flooring was placed throughout the church. The lighting was updated for better visual lines, and air-conditioning installed. The dark, cumbersome confessionals were removed from both front sides of the church, and one larger area renovated at the back of church for the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The railing at the choir loft was redesigned to allow for a better view of the stained glass window over the main entrance.

The pews were refinished, and shortened at the first three rows to open the space at the front of the church, and placed slightly further apart throughout the rest of the church for better comfort. Handicapped accessibility was provided at both the side and main entrances. Updates to the crying room included air conditioning and pews.

The annual fundraiser, the Parish Sweepstakes program, was changed to the Monthly Lottery ticket program, sponsored by the Holy Name Society. Parishioners are urged to purchase a numbered ticket, and based on the numbers selected by the Pennsylvania lottery drawing, a corresponding ticket holder is the daily winner of fifty-dollars.

In 2000, a statue depicting the crucified Christ embracing St. Francis was built in front of the main entrance. It became possible through generous funding in memory of Carmella Bartholomew, a vital member of the St. Francis Parish who passed away that year. She served many years with the Secular Franciscans, and the Altar and Rosary Society, organizing the ladies and their sacristy duties, along with the St. Joseph’s table celebration. The area surrounding the monument was landscaped under the artful eye of Fr. Joseph Dorniak, Pastoral Vicar, and maintained by a crew known as the ‘Garden Angels’.

In the fall of 2003, a yearlong celebration of the 75th anniversary as a Parish began. Multiple activities and events took place. First of all, a pictorial directory was organized with photos of individuals, families and groups and was published after the concluding Mass on October 10th, 2004. Throughout the year, a professional photographer was present to capture the assorted events for the pictorial. Sweatshirts and tee shirts with the parish logo became available for purchase.

In November, many Buffalo Bills fans gathered to take part in a tailgate party. Food, prizes and watching the game on a big screen TV were enjoyed by all. A German Choir performed for the parishioners in December, with beautiful Christmas Carols and compositions sung in German.

In January 2004, with the parish enrollment listed at 1408, the Anniversary celebration continued with a homemade spaghetti dinner-dance. Originally planned as just a part of the Anniversary celebration, it quickly became a sold-out event, and by popular request, it became an annual event for the parish.

The youth group sponsored a talent show in May. Assorted “productions” by various members of the parish, instrumental performances, dancing and singing and comedy entertained the audience.

In July, a chicken barbecue took place, as a part of the Anniversary celebration, in conjunction with a kick-off for a new program called “Generations of Faith”. This program is a parish-wide function to encourage faith sharing, and better understanding of those facets of the catholic faith we participate in, but may not know the historical roots or meaning of those functions. As a changing society, many times the passing on of faith from generation to generation is lost. This program is designed to fill this gap and bridge the assorted faith levels parishioners have to share with one another.