Diamond Jubilee -- Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M. was joined at the altar by about a dozen priests for the Mass of Thanksgiving to mark the 75th anniversary of St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford. Joe Moore photos
Diamond Jubilee -- Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M. was joined at the altar by about a dozen priests for the Mass of Thanksgiving to mark the 75th anniversary of St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford. Joe Moore photos

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

With songs of praise and prayers of gratitude, 600 faithful gathered in Medford’s St. Mary of the Lakes Church with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. June 10. There, they celebrated the 75th anniversary of a parish that began with a handful of families in a log cabin, and grew over the decades to serve a multitude of thousands.

Photo Gallery: St. Mary of the Lakes 75th Anniversary Mass

The vast nave of the church, filled with families and folks of all generations, reflected that demographic. Bishop O’Connell was warmly welcomed as he entered the church for the Mass of Thanksgiving along with the principal concelebrants: Msgr. James H. Dubell, the retired pastor; Father Daniel F. Swift, who became pastor three years ago, and Father Roy A. Ballacillo, parochial vicar.

They were joined at the altar by diocesan pastors and priests who had served the parish over the decades as well as priests from neighboring parishes. Deacons, Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia who have served the parish and its school devotedly over the years, and members of more than 60 ministries were also in attendance.

In a joyful nod to the passage of time since the parish boundaries were established June 25, 1943, Bishop O’Connell began his homily with a bit of a history lesson, explaining that in 1943, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States, Pius XII was Pope, the Most Reverend William Griffin was the sixth bishop of Trenton and he himself “wouldn’t be born for another 12 years!”

“A gallon of gas cost 15 cents, (Coca Cola) was 5 cents a bottle, milk 60 cents,” he noted, while a new car cost less than $1,000, a new home $7,000 and people made “an average of 30 cents an hour … The Mass was only in Latin then. The ‘greatest generation’ was coming of age and making its presence felt. The world was a very different place in 1943 when St. Mary of the Lakes Church was born …. in a log cabin!”

With that in mind, an anniversary like this, he said, is a milestone, an “occasion of joy” and an “opportunity to remember. For a Catholic parish, however, it is not buildings or property we remember, no. The 75th birthday of a parish – this parish, is a celebration of family and community,” reflecting “generations of faith – living out the promises of Baptism together, seeing and finding Christ together in his Church and in our neigborhoods.”

And what we “lift up today, is the Church of St. Mary, the clergy and faithful of the parish and 75 years of living our faith,” he said. “When this parish first began, like the ‘mustard seed’ in a log cabin, it was a small community.”

But like the mustard seed of Jesus’ parable, it has become “the largest of plants.”

Like a Mustard Seed

As parishioners and friends departed the church after Mass June 10, eager volunteers from the 75th anniversary history book committee presented them with two diamond jubilee keepsakes – a 96-page, lavishly illustrated book covering the history of the parish from its modest beginnings to the present day and 103-page handbook brimming with information and photographs of parish life.

The books capture not only the passage of time, but also the enduring spirit of those who, from the beginning, devoted themselves to building a community of faith amid the woodlands and lakes for which the area is known.

The parish, which now serves 4,200 families, had modest beginnings, first in a Medford pavilion during summer months only. Then in 1931, a small log cabin seating about 250 faithful was constructed for a mission, presided over by traveling priests from Sacred Heart Parish, Mount Holly, and Camden.

In response to the area’s growing Catholic demographic, Bishop Griffin established St. Mary of the Lakes as an independent parish on June 25, 1943. Since then, it has steadily continued to grow, even as it was split twice by the Diocese in 1961 and 1982 with the establishment of St. Joan of Arc, Marlton, and Holy Eucharist, Tabernacle.

The parish history notes that St. Mary of the Lakes met the need expressed by parishioners for Catholic education for their children with a school in 1954. First named for St. Joseph in honor of the sisters who staffed it and later renamed for St. Mary of the Lakes when it was expanded in the 1980s, the school opened with an enrollment of 180 students in first through fifth grade.

These days, more than 300 children attend the pre-K through eighth grade school in a facility that boasts a regulation-size gym, media center and computer labs. The parish religious education center, created out of the bounty of Parish 2000, a capital improvement plan, welcomed more than 650 children to religious instruction this year alone.

While the little log cabin still stands on Stokes Road where it serves as the Memorial Hall for the Protestant Community Church, the heart of the parish since 1966 has been the landmark St. Mary of the Lakes Catholic Church built to accommodate 1,000 people.

Situated on 10 acres of land on Jackson Road along with a rectory, its cruciform design by noted Philadelphia architect John Sabatino, glorious stained glass windows and beautiful interior furnishings were all selected, according to the anniversary book, to offer parishioners a “sense of peace and an opportunity to meet the Lord.”

All Good Gifts

On Nov. 1, 2015, Father Swift, whose family is native to neighboring Marlton, became the eighth pastor of St. Mary of the Lakes Church and School, succeeding his immediate predecessor, Msgr. James H. Dubell.

In his remarks at the conclusion of the Mass of Thanksgiving, Father  Swift expressed his joy in sharing this momentous occasion with Msgr. Dubell, whom he had first met as an altar boy while Msgr. Dubell was a weekend assistant at his home parish of St. Joan of Arc.

Father Swift spoke of how moved he was by the way the parish had come together to mark this milestone. “In my 29 years of priesthood, no event has topped this. It is my privilege to serve here,” he said.

After the Mass, Father Swift talked about other aspects of the 75th anniversary celebrations which were equally energizing including the $3 million “Our Faith Our Family Our Future” campaign earmarked to make a series of improvements to the campus.

“We set a stretch goal of $3 million and we have pledges of $3.5 million,” said Father Swift, noting that the funds will be used for “much needed renovations and an addition to the parish office as there is no room now to grow the staff. … We’ll create additional meeting rooms, upgrade the HVAC in the church and rectory and best of all, renovate the current baptistry (which is not used) into a Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration Chapel.”

Another big anniversary activity is the first annual St. Mary of the Lakes Carnival to be held June 26-30 on the parish grounds that the whole parish family is looking forward to, he said.

Anne and Garry Roettger, who have been active in parish life for 24 years and were handing out the history books at the luncheon, agreed.

“People are so good here,” said Garry Roettger. “What I have found in this parish is friendship, warmth and charity. These are very good people.”

Mary Pat Scordato, director of religious education for six years, was happy to see a number of her former students, including Brianna McNally, 18 at the luncheon.

“It’s such a joy to see them,” Scordato said of her former students. “It’s great that they are still part of the parish.”

McNally said there was no place she would rather have been on this Sunday afternoon. “I grew up in St. Mary and spend a lot of time at the church because I love it. My parents raised me Catholic and faith is a big part of my life. I came today because if I don’t go to church, I don’t feel connected.”