WRIGHT TWP. — Bishop Joseph Bambera readily admitted it.
“I don’t remember ever participating in the dedication of a new church,” he told the crowd gathered for the two-hour rite in the spacious new home of St. Jude Parish on Sunday.
The Diocese of Scranton has seen far more churches close than open in the last two decades, and Luzerne County was hit particularly hard, losing roughly half the churches it had just 20 years ago. And the event got the spectacle, and crowd, worthy of such rarity.
Launched with a haunting, a capella “Let us go rejoicing” sung by a distant children’s chorus, the procession ultimately commenced with a choir of some 50 adults backed by an 11-member musical ensemble ringing through the exposed wooden and metal beams holding up a ceiling of knotted wood panels.
Bambera was joined by more than 40 priests con-celebrating Mass in a church lit for the first hour only by the sun pouring in through stained glass windows that once graced the long-closed Holy Family Church in Scranton. Baut Studios in Swoyersville had restored six windows and mounted them into larger frosted panes on each side of the pews arranged in a semi-circle.
The altar also remained bare until Bambera finished his homily, which he opened by conceding he had to fight the urge to “pivot to my right,” a reference the odd L-shape of the old church, where the original nave was in front of the lectern, but an addition often referred to the “annex” was off to the right side of the priest.
That church was ultimately razed and paved for parking, though the crucifix was restored and hung behind the altar in the new structure. Bambera praised the parishioners for “not only building this church, but building the Church,” stressing it is the people who both compose a parish and reflect its values.
The service included sprinkling holy water throughout the church, and anointing parts of the walls with holy oil. To dedicate the altar, Bambera handed his mitre to a nearby priest and pulled his heavy, ornate outer vestment over his head. Carefully pulling a sleeve up, he meticulously rubbed the oil into the altar, which came from the closed St. Francis of Assisi Church in West Hazleton.
Once he put the vestment back on, incense was brought out in one large container on the altar and three hand-held containers priests swung as they walked throughout the church, to a beat of hand-tapped drums. A plastic sheet was placed over the altar, then a long white cloth rolled over it. Once the ritual was complete, candles were lit and ceiling lights came on.
Church Pastor Rev. Joseph Evanko gave some closing remarks, including noting he was wearing “saddle shoes” because that’s what his mother always made him wear. He admitted he was basically a Slovak boy from the Hazleton Heights, and, like Bambera, praised the parishioners profusely. He invited everyone to a reception in the school gymnasium behind the church, adding “We don’t have to say grace, we prayed enough.”
Both the ceremony and the new building garnered high praise.
“This was the Catholic Church at its best,” said Monsignor John Jordan, who served as assistant pastor at St. Jude more than four decades ago.
“We’re excited,” said Allison Ross, of Fairview Township, whose children Alex, 10, and Elliana, 7, attend catechism at St. Jude’s. The little girl will be part of the first class to receive First Communion in the new church this spring.
Steve Muntzenberger moved to Drums 14 years ago to work at the nuclear plant in Salem Township, and co-workers steered him to St. Jude’s. It’s a 5-and-1/2-mile drive from his house to the church but, he said, “They told me you’ve got to go to St. Jude’s.”
“I am impressed,” said Lucia Harkenreader, of Wright Township, who said the parish has always been welcoming. “It’s beautiful, but simple. There’s not a lot of frou-frou stuff.”
“It was such a positive experience (to take part in the dedication),” said Kathy Mulhearn Storz, of Rockaway, Md., whose twin brother, the Rev. Kevin P. Mulhearn, is senior priest at St. Jude’s. “It’s not every day you get to see a church dedication”
Because the new church building incorporates vintage stained glass windows, an altar table and other elements from churches that have closed, Storz said, the new St. Jude’s will be especially meaningful to “Catholic Christians from all over.”