At 175, St. James the Greater looks to the future
By Walt Schaefer
In long-established parishes, family trees point to lasting loyalty. At the same time, these maps of generations can also hint at a healthy future.
So it is at St. James the Greater in White Oak, which traces its roots to the German families who founded it 175 years ago. As a part of the parish’s anniversary celebration, a committee created family “history boards.” Many of them trace longstanding connections to the parish – some as far back as eight generations.
“The parish today has a lot of tradition,” said Conni Weaver, Anniversary Committee member. “There’s a lot of history within the families, a core strength of families. These people are thriving and keeping the parish alive and vibrant.
“We are aging together and trying to keep each other engaged,” she added. “We are all involved in our quest for holiness, but we’re also trying to figure out how we engage with our community. We’re trying to figure out ways to reach out and get back to growing the church, knowing it’s not going to be by numbers of people moving into subdivisions, which was the traditional pattern of growth in the past.”
Father Thomas Nolker, pastor, said that the anniversary has allowed St. James “to highlight how much the parish has changed in our 175 years.
“Sometimes it was a slow change; sometimes it was rapid,” he said “The boom in suburban living in the ‘50s and ‘60s, especially, made the parish change quickly, and in ways not seen in this area before. Now we see a slower adjustment in who we are and the spiritual needs of the people.”
Lay people have been active members since St. James began, Father Nolker said, noting that the original members “asked Bishop Purcell to send a priest to celebrate the sacraments for them. This parish is here because the laity decided it.”
Today’s lay-led commissions and groups continue that tradition. About a third of the 6,000 parishioners are over 50, and lay groups are helping to adapt existing ministries to this growing demographic. “At the same time,” Father Nolker said, “our School Advisory Committee has developed a strategic plan to help our school grow and maintain its excellence.”
St. James School, founded the same year as the parish, will welcome its largest kindergarten class in the fall. The school is a beacon for the future well-being of the parish.
“Enrollment today is at 546,” said Principal Jeff Fulmer, “and we’ve been fairly stable for the past couple of years, and it is now increasing. I attribute that to the fact we are very deliberate in the attention we give to new families and that there is a community feel in our school. Our goal is to build enrollment a little bit, and to be the premier Catholic school in the archdiocese.”
Fulmer said the archdiocese’s School of Faith program has been a “game changer.” A faith formation program for teachers and administrators, School of Faith “is not how to teach the faith, but educators making their own faith lives stronger,” he said.
Faith is just as central to the parish, Father Nolker said. “Prayer, especially Sunday Eucharist, has been the constant source of strength in our history.
“The primacy of the Sunday Eucharist has been and will be our continuing foundation. As the great Second Vatican Council said, the celebration of the Eucharist is the ‘source and summit’ of parish life. Our anniversary has helped us redouble our efforts to pray well since that is what has made this parish fruitful for 175 years and will sustain us in the days ahead.”
Ed Lanter has been a parishioner since he was a young child and attended St. James School.
“It’s always been a stable parish,” he said. “The involvement, especially among volunteers, is unbelievable. We have a great core group of volunteers who do an awful lot for the parish. There are a lot of core families with generation after generation — four and five and six generations. That’s a testament to the parish and I would think that will continue.”
Weaver said the parish is on the threshold of change — a time to face new challenges. “What I hope to see is that we are able to get the upcoming generations as engaged in maintaining this parish as in the past, because of what St. James has been able to bring to everyone in the parish and to the community at large,” she said. “Without the parish as a beacon in the community, you lose your framework, you lose your quest to get close to God.
“Some 100 odd years ago, they struggled with the physicality of it all — how to get back and forth, how am I going to make sure my crops come in. It was a real struggle. Going to church was an all-day event.
“The thing we are fighting today is all about spirituality — the distractions we have around us to keep us from God,” she said. “What I hope younger people will realize is that all of these short-term, immediate gratifications aren’t going to pay off. They’re still going to be restless, they’re still going to be seeking something, and we’re going to be there to say, ‘We think you’re missing God in your life.’ During this transition time, we must keep them engaged. That’s our job now.”
Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr celebrated the parish’s anniversary Mass on May 20.
Sunday Masses at St. James the Greater are celebrated at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., and noon. Weekday Masses are at 8:30 a.m., and Saturday Masses are at 4:30 p.m. For more information about the parish, visit Stjameswhiteoak.com.