The congregation of St. Ignatius, Hickory, the oldest Catholic church still in operation in the Baltimore Archdiocese and oldest parish in Harford County, will kick off a yearlong celebration of its 225th anniversary on Sunday.
"We are the oldest church [still] in use, in terms of our historic church," Msgr. James Barker, the church pastor, said during a recent visit.
The original church building, now known as the "historic church," was dedicated Sept. 27, 1792. Barker noted that George Washington was President of the United States and John Carroll, the first U.S. Catholic bishop and the first Archbishop of Baltimore, also was in office.
The anniversary celebrations begin with a Mass at noon Sunday, with Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore Dennis Madden as the celebrant. A 5-foot-high bronze statue of St. Ignatius, the church's patron saint, will also be dedicated on the Forest Hill campus.
Celebratory events are scheduled for each month through Sept. 24, 2017, the official celebration of the 225th anniversary.
Baltimore Archbishop William Lori will be the celebrant at the September 2017 Mass, according to a schedule of events.
'Intimate' historic church
The historic church seats 160 people. It is still used for weekday Mass at 7:30 and 9 a.m., plus 8 a.m. Saturday, and it is open all day Sunday for prayers.
Many funerals and weddings also are held in the historic church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
"It's small and intimate, and it's beautiful," said Barker, who has been the pastor since June of 2001.
The church sits on two acres purchased in 1779 by the Rev. Charles Sewall, the leader of the Mission of St. Joseph, a home-based congregation established by the Jesuits in 1743, according to a history provided by church officials. The property is at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 23 in Forest Hill, about three miles north of the Town of Bel Air.
Marion Townsley, the church's archivist and a former organist, noted the parish cemetery, which has tombstones dating to the 1780s, is older than the original church.
People who served in every U.S. war, including the American Revolution, are buried in the cemetery, according to Townsley, 79, a Forest Hill resident.
Townsley's roots in St. Ignatius date to the 1840s, when his maternal great-grandfather, Irish immigrant Joseph McGuigan, joined. McGuigan married Townsley's great-grandmother, Anne Farrell, and they are both buried in the church cemetery, he said.
"We have people here who [go back] six and seven generations," he said.
St. Ignatius has 3,500 families in its congregation, compared to 110 families when the church turned 180 years old in 1972, according to information provided by church leaders.
Townsley said parishioners knew each other by name when he was growing up, but "today, so many of them you don't know."
"But that's all right, they're all welcome," he said.
'Warm and welcoming'
Joan Strickroth, 78, of Bel Air, has been part of St. Ignatius for 45 years. She serves as a parish corporator and sacristant, a lay member who works with the pastor on community and business matters as one of two corporators and handles matters such as washing and ironing linens, ordering flowers, wine and candles as a sacristant.
Her husband, Jerry, 80, is a volunteer maintenance worker.
They were both awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, the highest honor the pope can give a lay volunteer, in 2011. They received the medal from then-Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O'Brien.
The couple moved from Baltimore to Harford County in 1971, when Jerry Strickroth, a member of the Army National Guard, was assigned to the airfield at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The Strickroths, and their children, were regular volunteers at the church – they maintained the St. Ignatius Grotto, a grass plot with flowers, a stone wall and a statue of the Blessed Mother, when their children were young.
Joan Strickroth said St. Ignatius was "warm and welcoming" from the beginning.
"I'm not from a big family, so it was like moving into a [large] family," she said of the congregation.
Present and future
The campus includes the historic church, as well as its larger parish church, an 850-seat sanctuary dedicated in December 2001, a parish center with educational and youth facilities, and rectory houses for clergy members. The rectories are across Route 23 from the church and were purchased during the late 1990s, according to the St. Ignatius website.
St. Ignatius has six affiliated "daughter" parishes in the region, such as St. Margaret in Bel Air, St. Mark of Fallston, the Church of St. Patrick in Havre de Grace and the Prince of Peace Church in Edgewood, according to Barker.
There are about 800 to 900 students in the Faith Formation religious education program at St. Ignatius and about 80 members of the church youth group.
"We want our young people to be excited that they're Catholic," Barker said.
Church leaders include Barker, two associate pastors and a retired-in-residence pastor.
They are supported by three active and two retired deacons, as well as additional staffers.
"It's a large staff, but for 3,500 families, you need them," Barker said.
St. Ignatius is also a training center for seminarians, according to Barker.
Part of county's growth
Barker is the 29th pastor of St. Ignatius. He succeeded the Rev. Kenneth Farabaugh, who died in an auto accident on Route 1 in December of 2000. Deacon Bob Lehr was the parish administrator until Barker was appointed in 2001, according to the church history.
The larger sanctuary was under construction when Barker was appointed, and he had to see it through to completion and dedication.
"It was exciting to be part of the growth here in Harford County," he said.
Barker pointed out the wooden statues and 14 Stations of the Cross, made by Peruvian artisans who work with the nonprofit Artesanos Don Bosco, that are all around the newer sanctuary.
He also noted the sanctuary had been designed without any pillars to block the view of parishioners.
"You never feel too far from the people or the priests," Barker said.
The religious decorations and statuary in the sanctuary are part of the traditional Catholicism practiced at St. Ignatius.
"It reminds them of their past, and it brings them in touch with the Lord," Barker said of new members.
The congregation continues to grow, with about 29 new families joining each month, according to the pastor.
He said the future of St. Ignatius involves reminding parishioners that faith can be "a tremendous asset" while living in a "basically secular world."
"Families are pulled in so many directions," Barker said. "They have to make choices, and we hope church would be at the top of the list."