The parish community known as Our Lady of Mercy has its roots in Harborcreek Training School founded in 1911 by Msgr. Herman Clement Weinker who was the first diocesan superintendent of schools. One room in one of the farmhouses on the property served as a chapel for the Sisters of St. Joseph who operated the school and resided there. Soon neighbors began attending Mass there as well. The numbers gradually increased and in 1925 Our Lady of Mercy became a mission of St. Peter Cathedral. This permitted the keeping of the “Book of Life,” the record of Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, Marriages. The first name entered in the baptismal registry is that of George Knecht, son of Otto Knecht and Catherine Johnston. He was baptized on March 8, 1925 by Rev. Joseph J. Wehrle, later president of Gannon College. In September 1927 the Altar Society was formed. Twenty-four members attended that first meeting at which Gertrude Haas was elected president; Mrs. Julia Heibel, vice-president, Mary O’Brien, secretary, and Mrs. George Maille, treasurer. In June 1928, the altar society made plans for the first summer festival.
Fr. Walter Conway came to Harborcreek Training School in 1927. He performed the first marriage at Our Lady of Mercy on June 22, 1929, uniting William E. Boniger and Margaret Whitford. On August 23, 1939, Fr. Conway wrote to Bishop Gannon requesting that Our Lady of Mercy Chapel be established “as an independent Mission with parochial rights.” In his letter he noted, there were sixty-four families attending Mass and religious services and he was often called upon to perform baptisms, weddings and funerals. He continued to minister to the parish community until 1943 when Fr. Leonard Kuziora was named superintendent of Harborcreek Training School. Growth of the parish community can be seen in the number of baptisms performed - 98 by Fr. Conway during his sixteen years at the parish and 30 by Fr. Kuziora in three years.
May 4, 1946 marked the official beginning of Our Lady of Mercy as a parish when Fr. William Hastings was named Superintendent of Harborcreek Training School for Boys and Rector of Our Lady of Mercy. The first baptism Fr. Hastings performed was that of Louise Bleil on May 12, 1946. By 1948 the little chapel could no longer accommodate the growing parish and Mass was offered in the gym at Harborcreek. Mass continued to be offered at the school until 1954. Approval for construction of the first parish building was given in March, 1953. According to the April 10, 1953 Lake Shore Visitor Register, the ‘dream’ parish was to consist eventually of five buildings including a church, rectory, catechetical center, grade school and convent.
To provide a more spacious site for the parish complex, property on Buffalo Road was sold and property on Bartlett Road was purchased from Albert and Ida Hadberg in 1952. The first building constructed was a catechetical center with attached chapel. The chapel would allow for weekday Masses and a place for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. The “community building,” as architect Oscar Brenot called it, would seat 404 for Sunday Mass. On Easter Sunday, 1954, the first Mass was celebrated there by Fr. Hastings. The first baptism in the new church was that of Roy Peters on Easter Sunday of 1954.
On October 12, 1961, Fr. Hastings became pastor of St. Stephen’s in Oil City and Fr. James Sperry became pastor of Our Lady of Mercy as well as superintendent of Harborcreek School for Boys. Continued growth of the parish, as well as the Harborcreek community, can be seen in the fact that in the first ten years of Fr. Sperry’s pastorate, he performed 438 baptisms!
This growth would lead to Fr. Sperry’s first building project as pastor, that of the parish social hall. In a letter to parishioners in 1962 he described the crowded and adverse conditions under which religious education classes were conducted. Classes were held everywhere, in the kitchen, sacristy, even garage! In addition to this overcrowding, he sensed a strong desire on the part of the parish community for a ‘permanent’ church. What existed at the time was, as he described, “a hall that was on occasion a Church” and using it as a hall required moving every pew, making it “a hall with a handicap.” With the cost of a new permanent church considered beyond the parish’s financial means, the building proposed was a parish social hall with folding partitions that would be used to create six temporary classrooms for religious education. A new kitchen would be added to the new building and the old social hall/church would be renovated to create a ‘semi-permanent’ church.
There would be permanent pews, a central entrance created with a vestibule and a portico built to make the building look more church-like. There would also be a balcony over the vestibule to provide a space for the choir. The new social hall/catechetical center was formally dedicated on July 7, 1963.
From its days as a mission chapel at Harborcreek School up to and including the beginning of Fr. Sperry’s pastorate, Our Lady of Mercy never had a resident pastor. Its pastors were always the administrators/superintendents of the boys' home and usually resided there as well. And so, once the church had been renovated and the new social hall completed, the attention of the parish community turned to the idea of building a rectory. In September 1965 a parish committee composed of William Meyers, Robert Liebel, Joseph Varo, Floyd Dougherty and Raymond Peck along with Fr. Sperry wrote to Archbishop Gannon requesting permission to build a rectory. Permission was granted on October 20, 1965. The rectory was completed in 1966. Also in this year, ties with Harborcreek School for Boys were finally dissolved with the appointment there of a new administrator. Twenty years into its existence as a parish and more than fifty years since Mass was first celebrated in the little chapel at Harborcreek Training School, Our Lady of Mercy finally had a full time resident pastor.
Our Lady of Mercy was the first pastorate for Father Sperry who had spent twenty years as the chaplain at St. Joseph’s Home for Children while also teaching at Cathedral Prep. ‘Brick and mortar’ only partly describe the many changes he guided the parish through during his nearly thirty years as pastor.
In the 1960’s the Second Vatican Council brought many changes to the Church and with these came greater participation by the laity in the life of the Church. Liturgical changes provided lay people more opportunity to actively participate in the Eucharist. With these liturgical changes would come renovations to the church itself, such as removal of the altar railing. Once permission was given for reception of Communion while standing and, with the establishment of the new rite of Penance, the Room of Reconciliation - both occurring in the 1970’s.
Of considerable significance in the spiritual development of the parish was RENEW, a program offered throughout the diocese from 1986 to 1988, designed to encourage individual spiritual renewal at the parish level. The September following the end of RENEW, Msgr. Sperry, Barb Jacquel, and Irene Lubecki attended a workshop given by Fr. Art Baranowski regarding a method of restructuring parishes into small communities. Of all the parishes who attended the workshop, Our Lady Of Mercy was the only parish to follow through and develop a CORE Team along with training facilitators. The parish’s experience in setting up small faith communities has been shared with many other parishes who only later began following in its footsteps.
Also making significant contributions to the spiritual development of the parish were the religious women who joined the staff of the parish as directors of the religious education program. Prior to their arrival, the program had been staffed and run by lay volunteers. The first was Sr. Grace Madonia, SSJ who became the director of Religious Education in September 1979. She was followed by Sister Lois Bulishak, OSB from 1982 to 1985 and Sister Rosemary O’Brien, SSJ, who joined the staff in 1985.
New parish organizations came into being during Msgr. Sperry’s pastorate. In 1970, the first parish council was formed to assist the pastor in the administration of the parish. Also, the Legion of Mary was established in 1970 and has, throughout the years of its existence, provided both spiritual and temporal services to the parish as well as the greater community. In 1975 the Five Decades Club, an organization for senior citizens, came into being. In 1978 the first Cursillo was held at the parish and has been ‘at home’ at Our Lady of Mercy ever since. Also finding a home at Our Lady of Mercy was the Harborcreek Food Pantry which officially began in 1983.
Also established during Msgr. Sperry’s pastorate was the parish newsletter, “For Mercy’s Sake,” published first in February 1975 with Mary Grzegorzewski as its first editor. For twenty-one years, it has chronicled the important events of an ever changing and growing parish community.
The parish community would share many joyous occasions with Msgr. Sperry. Several of importance would include Mary Ellen Plumb making her final vows as a sister of St. Benedict in 1973 and the ordinations to the priesthood of native sons, Fr. Joseph Olsen in 1982 and Fr. John Jacquel in 1983. On a personal level, in 1984 the parish joined Msgr. Sperry in celebrating his being named a Prelate of Honor by Pope John Paul II. Another joyous celebration involved the rededication of the Mystical Rose Garden in honor of the Blessed Mother at the parish feast day celebration in 1988. This project, close to Msgr. Sperry’s heart, began in 1978 but really came to its present form some ten years later.
On June 17, 1990, one more parish celebration would occur with Msgr. Sperry - one mixing joy and sadness - that would also bring with it a major change in the life of the parish community. On that day the parish would celebrate the retirement of Msgr. Sperry as pastor of Our Lady of Mercy. On July 10, 1990, Bishop Michael Murphy would write to Father Gerald Ritchie, pastor of St. Francis Parish in Clearfield: “You are a source of joy and pleasure for me; you’re my last personnel appointment as Diocesan Bishop!” That appointment would be as pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish.
Fr. Ritchie was formally installed as pastor on September 24, 1990. Significant in his first term was the evolution of the parish council into a pastoral council which came into being in April 1992. Unlike a parish council, the pastoral council is concerned with more than the practical details of parish life. It is to provide a vision of where and how and in what way the parish can advance itself spiritually, strengthening the bonds of unity and building up the faith of the people. Its first project was the writing of the parish mission statement designed to clearly state who the parish community of Our Lady of Mercy is and what its purpose is.
Also being developed in Fr. Ritchie’s first term would be the “Hands of Mercy,” an organization based on the diocesan care and concern model of service in which parishioners volunteer to help meet some of the social welfare needs of the parish community.
Staff changes brought Sister Irene Lucas, OSB ‘on board’ as the Director of Religious Education in 1995 with Sister Rosemary becoming the Pastoral Minister that same year. Sister Mary Daniel Meahl, OSB also joined the parish staff as Director of Music.
Occurring in Fr. Ritchie’s first term as pastor, were renovations to the church proper as well as to Mary’s chapel and the building of a new garage. But what became most apparent to him was the need for more space - more room for meetings, for religious education classes, for social gatherings. He came to a parish that had almost doubled in size since the beginning of Msgr. Sperry’s pastorate with a complex of buildings built mostly in the 1950’s and 1960’s. (The last building added was the gym in 1974.) In the May 1995 “For Mercy Sake” Father addressed these concerns to the parish community. After meetings with both the Religious Education Board and the Pastoral Council, he wrote to Bishop Trautman requesting his approval “to begin a process of exploration and education which would solve the problems in a most appropriate manner.” A parish building committee was identified to discern future plans for the parish.
Fr. Ritchie was appointed to a second term as pastor in April 1996. As he and the parish look forward to meeting its present spiritual and temporal needs while planning for the future, they can look back to see that, indeed, the history of Our Lady of Mercy has always been one of growth and change and they can, as Fr. Ritchie wrote: “. . .borrow from the vision of our founders and have the courage to recognize the need and seek a solution as we move to the future..."
|HISTORY OF OUR BUILDING PROJECT
On the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy in September 1996, our parish community celebrated the 50th Anniversary of its founding. As we reflected on the community’s faith journey which began in 1946, and the legacy of those who laid the strong foundation, plans were being made for our faith journey into the 21st century.
After much discussion, the Pastoral Council, at its January 5, 1995 meeting, decided to write to Bishop Trautman requesting permission to initiate a renovation process of the parish facilities. Members of the Council at that time were Tim Eisert, Chairperson, Pete Froess, Marilyn Garwig, Sr. Rosemary O’Brien, Kay Ray, Fr. Ritchie, Claudette Terrill, Tom Wuerstle, and Lorie Daugherty.
Bishop Trautman granted the request on February 8,1995. On May 21, 1995, Fr. Ritchie made the first presentation to the parish outlining the needs of our growing community. During the summer of 1995, the Building Committee was formed. The Committee held its first meeting on September 19, 1995. Members present were Joe Tarquinio, Bill Spring, Cheri Ruminski, Brenda Bemiss, Sr. Rosemary O’Brien, Ed Welch, Barb Jacquel, Cookie Brumbaugh, Dave Parmenter, Gary Lacy, Ray Johnson, Andy Martin, Thomas Palisin—Chair, Jim Bucklin, and Fr. Jerry Ritchie.
On March 13, 1996 the Building Committee engaged Grant Scott from KSBH Architects, Pittsburgh, PA, to do a feasibility study. Two town meetings were held in October 1996 and November 1997 to keep the community apprised of the progress of the building project and to get feedback from the community.
To educate the Committee and the community, Michael DeSanctis, Ph.D., in January and February 1997, gave a series of presentations on Church Art and Architecture and Vatican II liturgical directives.
With the feasibility study completed, the second phase of the project began. On June 30, 1997, Victor King, from Crowner/King Architects was selected as the architect to head the project. The Committee finally settled on the design of the present facility and held the third town meeting the weekend of February 14-15, 1998.
To mark the beginning of the last phase of our project, the community celebrated a Rite of Transition on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord in January 1999. Following each of the Masses, parishioners processed, carrying the symbols of the sacramental life of the parish, to the gym, which would serve as the temporary worship space.
February 4,1999 marked the beginning of the construction phase. On this date, an agreement was signed with Barnhart Builders Inc., the General Contractors for the building project.
On February 21, 1999, with Bishop Trautman, Tom and Tim Barnhart, Victor King, our Building Committee and the community present, the groundbreaking ceremony was celebrated. In nontraditional fashion, the ground was broken inside the shell of the old worship space where the new baptismal font would be located.
The next day, February 22, 1999 was a day of mixed emotions as demolition began on the building that had been the familiar home of our worshipping community for many years.
New construction began and continued through the spring, summer and fall. On the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy in September 1999, parish families placed decorated stones in the ground beneath where the new altar would stand—a reminder that the Church is built of “living stones.”
Finally on the Fourth Sunday of Advent 1999, the community celebrated the Rite of Return to the new worship site, once again processing with the sacramental symbols of parish life.
On Christmas Eve 1999, between 850-900 people attended the First Mass celebrated in the new worship space.
From the beginning of our project, the Building Committee had always envisioned January 1, 2000 as the completion date of the building project. On New Year’s Day 2000, the parish community celebrated the Laying of the Cornerstone.