St. John celebrates two milestone anniversaries

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Columbia will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and its Hispanic ministry will celebrate its 40th anniversary, on Sept. 9 with an outdoor Mass, picnic and concert at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.

"This is the big one coming up," said Maureen Chandler, a member who is helping coordinate the event. "We're expecting a pretty large crowd."


Eighteen families celebrated St. John first Mass in September 1967 at Slayton House. There are now more than 2,000 families and 1,300 Hispanic families, according to the Rev. Gene Nickol, associate pastor at St. John's.

"We are the only Catholic church in Columbia," Nickol said. "We are very happy to be celebrating."

Today, services are held at both Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills interfaith centers, a concept Jim Rouse envisioned when he founded Columbia 50 years ago, according to the Rev. Gerry Bowen, pastor at St. John the Evangelist.

"It's not the way congregations tend to get started," admitted Bowen. "The vision Rouse had was unusual … every body rubbing shoulders and getting to know each other. It is common on military bases but certainly different in most cases in neighborhoods."

Five interfaith centers were built in Columbia, allowing various religious groups to share space.

"One of the most exciting things about the idea of interfaith centers was that they were building something that allowed ourselves to dream without concerns about costs," Bowen said. "They wanted us to build with our hearts."

It was a way of conserving financially, too, Bowen said.

"New land is so expensive," Bowen said. "It was a way of conserving resources. By not purchasing a building or parking lot, we were able to free up funds for programs and people."

The church shares the Wilde Lake facility with St. John United Church. It shares the Oakland Mills facility with Bet Aviv, Columbia Baptist Fellowship, Columbia United Christian Church, Columbia Jewish Congregation and Our Windows.

Many denominations have used the interfaith centers as a way to grow their congregation, said Paul Gifford, a deacon at St. John the Evangelist. Over the years, he has seen many groups start at the interfaith center and then move to its own, permanent location.

St. John the Evangelist is not looking to move, Bowen said.

"We are very happy," Bowen said. "We get to share space and be hospitable with each other. Our country is being challenged to withdraw and set up walls. We have to be support of one another."

While one room at Wilde Lake tends to be used solely by St. John — the altar stays in place and other religious items remain on the walls — the room can, and has been, stripped down to be used for other purposes, Bowen said. Another room, on the other hand, where the Hispanic Mass is held, experiences a makeover several times on Sundays, as it is shared with St. John United Church, a United Methodist/Presbyterian Church.

"Every Catholic church has a crucifix behind the altar. It's required," Bowen said. "In cooperation with St. John, we designed a backdrop we can close to reveal a blank wall where they can hang banners. It took a little bit of imagination."


As soon as the Hispanic Mass ends and members start to file out, other members close the backdrop and remove candles and other religious items, placing them in cabinets on the back wall of the room. Members of St. John United then proceed to add their religious items.

"It is not always an easy thing to do and it can create tension," Bowen said, of sharing space. "You learn how to cooperate. Together you can do anything."

For some, the lack of a permanent space with permanent fixtures is not appealing, Gifford said. Gifford also noted that there are many who don't know that a Catholic church is in the area.

"One of the problems of an interfaith center is it doesn't look like a church," Gifford said. "There was a Catholic family just down the street that didn't know we were here for awhile."

Gifford said he is impressed with the workings of the interfaith centers, noting that the shared rooms are used by several groups, including Girl Scout troops and the Knight of Columbus, and are rarely empty.

"It's a busy place," Gifford said. "It's nice. We don't need the rooms all the time. "

A variety of choirs and musical groups are important in both the traditional and Hispanic communities. At the anniversary celebration, representatives from all of the musical groups, for a total of 65 choir members and 20 musicians, will perform. Javier Ramirez, 16, has been playing violin at the Hispanic Masses for almost three years and will be part of the celebration.

"We do a lot of events and we go to other places," Javier said. "I've learned a lot about my faith."

His father, Fransico Ramirez, encouraged his son to join the group.

"He started as an alter server," Ramirez said. "I pushed and pushed him to go play with the group. He said 'ah no. I don't play that type of music.' "

Ramirez, moved his family to the area to be closer to St. John.

"This is one of the reasons I moved here," Ramirez said. "I have been here for eight years."

The Hispanic community has been growing steadily the last few years, Bowen said. There are three Spanish Masses and all are well attended, he said.

Although there is a Catholic church within walking distance of his home in Carroll County, Barry Parker and his family attend St. John, where Parker was raised and has been a member for over 38 years.

"Everyone is very welcoming," Parker said. "The diversity … all four corners of the globe are here. We really enjoy it."

Chandler came to the parish in 2002 when she moved to the area. She, too, found the community very welcoming and credits the pastoral staff.

"We are very fortunate to have four full-time priests," Chandler said. "We are really, really blessed. They are full of spiritual energy and very involved in the community."

The outdoor Mass and picnic on Sept. 9 is only the beginning of a yearlong celebration, Chandler said. A historic community walk around Lake Kittamaqundi, led by Ned Tillman, a local author and speaker, will offer insight into the beginnings of Columbia and interfaith centers, is scheduled for October. Timothy Schmalz's statue "Homeless Jesus," a bronze sculpture depicting Jesus as a homeless person sleeping on a park bench, will arrive in November. Volunteer opportunities, a Lenten retreat and a parish concert in the spring are also in the works.

"It is a full year of events," Chandler said.

In the event of bad weather, the outdoor Mass will be moved inside and the picnic will likely be canceled.