On a lovely Saturday in September, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, celebrated the Mass of Installation assigning the Rev. Mel Ayala as pastor at St. Nicholas Catholic Church — a highlight of the year when the church embarks on a new chapter.
The mid-sized South Laurel parish, which celebrates its golden anniversary in 2017, grew from a young parish established in 1967 without a permanent home. Congregating in apartment complexes and the movie theater at the Laurel Shopping Center, the church’s first liturgical music was performed by an acoustic guitar group that still performs at Mass today.
Ginny Novak, whose young family moved to Montpelier the year the Archdiocese established the church, is a founding parishioner who’s been a member of the guitar group since its inception. Novak said she has seen St. Nicholas and the guitar group go through many changes.
The folksy songs the group performed, such as “Here we Are,” written by American social justice advocate and seminarian Ray Repp, gradually evolved into more inclusive hymns such as “Gather Us In,” written by Marty Haugen in 1982.
St. Nicholas grew up to include traditional, gospel and children’s choirs as well as guitar and piano. Today, music director Stu Knazik sometimes accompanies on drums.
Many ministries have been added to the still-vibrant congregation over the years. Today, the parish’s permanent home resides on nine landscaped acres on Contee Road, where African, African-American, Filipino, Indian and Pakistani Catholics blend seamlessly into the parish.
Dorie Ranaghan, who served in the rectory 1987–2000, said worshiping at St. Nicholas is “like being in the U.N.” because it’s a place where diverse people work together and make things happen.
Mary Kigand, a member of the Lectors, International Catholics and Charismatic Prayer Group, said the many nations represented at St. Nicholas are what she envisions heaven looking like.
Anniversary planning committee chair Jim Donahue was drawn to St. Nicholas as a single 23-year-old in 1973, he said, because he was charmed by the music and the people.
“Long before the ministry of greeters was established, members of the parish took it upon themselves to greet everyone entering the church,” he said. “That is what drew many back to become permanent parishioners.”
Donahue said that while the founders have aged and the demographics shifted, “the spirit of warmth has never waned.”
“Fifty years is an amazing milestone for any entity; for St. Nicholas, it is a testament to our enduring faith and caring for one another,” he said. “This anniversary compels our parish to look both forward and back,” he said.
In 1960, Laurel’s population had reached more than 8,500 residents. Fort Meade and the National Security Agency were well established, and new apartment complexes and houses began popping up along Route 197.
After a visit to St. Mary of the Mills in early 1967, then-Bishop Patrick O’Boyle was delayed (probably by traffic, Donahue surmised) on his return to Washington, D.C., and noticed the budding communities around Laurel.
He realized that St. Mary of the Mills, established in 1843 and the only Catholic church under the Archdiocese of Washington serving the area, was too full to serve the growing population in its Old Town parish.
On Sept. 9, 1967, the Archdiocese created St. Nicholas Catholic Church, named for San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in chains) by decree. The new parish was bound by the Patuxent River, Powder Mill Road, Muirkirk Road and Route 198.
Born without a home, the church’s inaugural Mass was celebrated by assigned pastor the Rev. Anthony Griffin at the Fox Rest Apartments’ gymnasium, and drew about 500 worshipers.
Holy day Masses were celebrated in those early days at the former Snow Hill Apartments rental office, while Sunday Masses continued at Fox Rest and daily Masses were held in private homes with permission from the Archdiocese, a practice Donahue said was unusual.
St. Nicholas’s second year brought the Rev. Thomas Kane to the transient parish. Kane is credited with driving the construction of the church building as St. Nicholas’s founding pastor, and Ranaghan credits Kane with creating “a community where everyone is welcome, a legacy which has continued for the whole 50 years.”
Kane moved Sunday Masses to the Laurel Shopping Center’s movie theater and seminarian musicians came from Washington, D.C., to help launch the guitar group, according to Novak.
“We were all young and Father Kane was very encouraging,” she said. “We were singing and playing and loving it.”
Novak said she remembers gathering at the Hot Shoppes after Sunday Mass at the Laurel Shopping Center for coffee and donuts was “a big social thing.”
In autumn 1968, the church was able to leasr a parish rectory on Twin Hill Lane in Montpelier and the Parish Council was established.
By the end of 1969, 650 families were registered at St. Nicholas; 800 were registered by the end of 1970 and today there are 630. Donahue said St. Nicholas remains warm and welcoming with a slightly smaller congregation and is well on its way to financing and building a new hall.
In January 1970, St. Nicholas Catholic Church broke ground at Contee Road, and in May 1971, Kane celebrated Mass for the first time in the parish’s present and permanent home; the church was formally dedicated by Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle in June 1971.
In the country’s bicentennial year, the Rev. Joseph Ranieri was installed as pastor and officially changed St. Nicholas’s patron saint to St. Nicholas of Bari, the 4th-century model for Santa Claus.
The church’s Chapel of Our Lady of Grace was dedicated in 2002, and the St. Nicholas Gospel Choir formed six years ago.
The Rev. Vincent Donovan was St. Nicholas’s sixth and longest-serving pastor, from 1982-1993. Donohue said Jesuit priest the Rev. Frank T. Gignac has also been celebrating some Masses and presiding at weddings and funerals since 1974.
“The parish is very lucky to have him,” he said.
Ayala was assigned as the church’s 12th pastor last July. According to Novak, the Sept. 2 pastor installation liturgy inspired a feeling of joy among the people who lingered to socialize and eat celebration cake.
“I am delighted to be the pastor of St. Nicholas Catholic Church, especially this year, as the parish is celebrating 50 years of faith and service,” Ayala wrote in an email. “The enthusiasm and zeal of so many of the St. Nicholas faithful is what makes our local parish so vibrant — that tenacity is certain to continue for the next 50 years and beyond.”
On Dec. 2, Wuerl will return to celebrate the 50th anniversary Mass. A gala anniversary event is planned for Dec. 8 at the Sheraton College Park North Hotel. Donahue will emcee, Ayala will be the celebrant and former St. Nicholas pastors and parishioners will enjoy an evening of dinner, music and dancing.
“I think St. Nicholas will continue to be a strong faith community, with more leadership [emerging] from the richness of our diversity,” Novak said.
Pastors of St. Nicholas Catholic Church:
Rev. Anthony R. Griffin, 1967–1968
Rev. Thomas A. Kane, 1968–1972
Rev. Michael J. McManus, 1972–1974
Rev. Paul P. Norton, 1974–1976
Rev. Joseph A. Ranieri, 1976–1982
Rev. Vincent D. Donovan, 1982–1993
Rev. James A. Finan, 1993–1996
Rev. John M. Barry, 1996–1998
Rev. Robert P. Buchmeier, 1998–2005
Rev. James S. Betz, 2005–2011
Rev. John H. Kennealy, 2011–2017
Rev. Mel Ayala, 2017–present