A building almost a decade in the making is finally about to take shape on the corner of Main Street and St. Mary's Place in Laurel.
St. Mary of the Mills Parish broke ground on a new parish center Sunday, Sept. 8, with much fanfare as hundreds gathered for the occasion, parish officials said.
"I look forward to seeing the even bigger shovels in the ground, but it's a tremendous feeling of joy, seeing all the hard work, all the planning and fundraising come together," said Monsignor Michael Mellone, pastor of St. Mary's Parish. "We've been working on this for a good number of years now."
Mellone said construction will get underway on the $7 million, 31,000 square-foot facility by the end of this month or the beginning of October . The Keesler Center is being named after the late Msgr. Robert Keesler, who served as pastor of St. Mary's from 1967 to1971 and, after his retirement, served as pastor emeritus at St. Mary's. Upon his death at age 97 in 2006, he was the longest-serving pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, with a tenure of 69 years.
"He was a very caring man," said Rick Wilson, a St. Mary's parishioner and member of the church's building committee. "One of my favorite things to remember is him presiding over a Latin Mass once a week when he was still healthy, in his early 90s. He left money to the parish, and we thought it was fitting to put it toward the center and name it after him."
The center is expected to be completed in a year, and will be fashioned in the style of Laurel's now-gone historic mills.
"Look at where we're at," said Donald Kutzera, the church's project manager for the new center. "It's in historic Laurel and it's a stone's throw away from where the original [Laurel Cotton] mill stood. It's going to enhance Main Street a great deal as far as its heritage is concerned."
It's been a long road to get to the groundbreaking, said former pastor Monsignor Michael Wilson. The parish has been raising the funds for more than seven years, and construction was supposed to being in spring 2011. But work was delayed as the church raised more money — $4 million total from parishioners, and the other $3 million in loans, Mellone said.
The building will stand in the place of St. Mildred Hall, built in 1923 and demolished in December 2010 after being used for community events like dances, plays, graduation ceremonies, athletic events and overflow for holiday Mass. The hall was even used for church services during St. Mary's reconstruction in the 1950s. Mellone said he hopes the new center lasts as long as St. Mildred.
'Feel like we're at home'
After St. MildredHall was demolished, both the church and St. Mary of the Mills School were using the nearby Phelps Center for events, classes and meetings. That's not going to be the case anymore, as the Keesler Center will feature a gym, a stage, a commercial kitchen, a large meeting space and smaller meeting spaces.
"It means we won't have to go rent out space for our kids to play sports anymore — it will be right there for them to use," Kutzera said. "We won't be as restricted in what we can do."
The Rev. William Carloni, St. Mary's associate pastor, said it will be nice to use the new center and "it will be nice to feel like we're at home there.
"We have a large community and a very active parish, and this center has certainly been a parish effort," he said. "It's been the result of a generous response and collaboration of many people putting together their time, talent and treasure. This is something we can celebrate together, and it will bring us even closer as a community, having this to enjoy together."
The Keesler Center will also include the Pallotti Early Learning Center, which is currently housed at adjacent St. Vincent Pallotti High School and is run by the Pallotine Sisters. Now the day care will be under the umbrella of St. Mary's, and the only difference other than the location, Rick Wilson said, is that the employees will now be paid by the diocese rather than the Sisters.
Mellone "took up the gauntlet," Kutzera said, of continuing the planning work on the new center after the departure of Wilson, who was pastor at St. Mary's from 2002-2011. Now pastor at Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Solomons, Wilson was the one to start planning on the Keesler Center.
"I really came on in the middle," Mellone said. "So many parishioners had already been committed to this for years, and I think it was a kind of blessing that the planning had already been started. Often times, it's more difficult getting people to be enthusiastic about a large project that's going to be around for a long time. Once that endeavor has been committed to, it's almost easier to come in and keep it going."
St. Mary's — both the church and the school — are growing, so the space was need, Wilson said, and will be "a wonderful addition to the parish as well as the city."
"It's a very vibrant community," said the former pastor. "We needed a place to gather, so this willl be a real blessing. It'll be a great asset to the school and the city, and it's been a long time coming. It's going to be a wonderful gift when it gets here. It'll be busy all the time."
As he has watched the stretch of buildings along St. Mary's Place change over the years, Kutzera said it's been "fantastic" to see the community grow.
"You don't always get to see change as beautiful as what's happened up here with St. Mary's," he said. "The parish has changed, the people have changed as the city has grown. But, you know, the basic love in St. Mary of the Mills is still the central theme here. God's hand is always right there to guide us through whatever we need to get through."