DRACUT -- The Catholic community at St. Francis Parish managed to build two churches in less than 50 years.
In celebration of that achievement, and the 50 years since its dedication as a parish on Feb. 12, 1963 -- after several years as a mission community of St. Michael Parish in Lowell -- St. Francis has planned three events scheduled that are open to all.
On Sunday, Feb. 3, at 11 a.m., Cardinal Sean O'Malley will celebrate the 50th Anniversary Mass with former pastors, clergy who have served the parish and Deacon John Hunt.
A light buffet in the parish hall will follow the Mass and parishioners and guests will be able to explore parish history through a pictorial presentation featuring faces and events dating back to St. Francis' mission years.
On Saturday, Feb. 9, beginning at 6 p.m., a Mardi Gras dinner-dance will be held at Lenzi's in Dracut. Rich Blanchette, anniversary committee co-chair, says the evening will feature entertainment by Chapter 11 and the St. Francis Parish Show Group. Tickets at $30 each are available by calling the parish office.
The weekend of Feb. 16 and 17, the first Sunday in Lent, will feature a food drive in honor of the parish's 13th century patron saint, Francis of Assisi, known for his passion for caring for the poor, committee co-chair Sharon Smart said. Parishioners will bring to church non-perishable food donations for the Dracut Food Pantry.
With so many new and young families in the parish, the historical aspect of the celebration is expected "to be enlightening for many and a walk down memory lane for others," says parish historian Fran deMontigny. Her involvement dates back to the mission years when Masses were celebrated in a schoolhouse and later in the modest church on Methuen Street.
Committee members Michael and Laura Cote were married in the current Wheeler Road church in 2004. They are learning some of the church history through clips printed in the church bulletin each week and look forward to learning more, they said.
The Rev. Brian Mahoney, pastor, said it's "a really powerful moment in the life of a community to be able to celebrate a milestone like 50 years, especially through a liturgy."
St. Francis is "so open and inviting, which is one of the primary reasons this community has continued to flourish. I saw it in the way they welcomed me from the moment I arrived and I see it in the way they reach out to others to get them involved. It shows the love that the people have for the community of St. Francis," he added.
Mahoney and committee members hope this welcoming spirit draws current and past parishioners or anyone seeking a church community to join the celebrations.
The spacious Wheeler Road church was built on farmland purchased in 1965 by the first pastor, the Rev. George P. Gallivan. He had "incredible foresight" to purchase 15 acres for $10,000 for a new church, deMontigny said. The church was built and dedicated in 1996.
"Even though many people said it could never be done and that it's too far out of the way," the Rev. Brian R. Kiely, pastor from 1993 to 2001, used his "vision and charisma" to carry Gallivan's vision to fruition, deMontigny said.
The parish has also been blessed, deMontigny added, by the devotion of the pastors who followed Kiely, the Revs. Robert Blaney, Robert Connors and Mahoney; and those who preceded him, the Revs. Francis Doherty, John Pettie, Frederick Sweeney and James Power.
The church ties into Lowell history and part of his own past, said Deacon John Hunt. Most of the stained glass windows in St. Francis Church were formerly installed in Hunt's former parish, St. Peter's Church. The Dracut church was being built around the same time that St. Peter's was razed. Kiely requested the windows for St. Francis.
Hunt also points out that when tragedy struck the country on 9/11, it was at the new St. Francis Church that the funeral for parish member John Ogonowski, captain and pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, took place. The picturesque land surrounding the church was formerly owned by his relatives.
"There was such sadness in the parish at 9/11, and we have grown from that tragedy," he said, adding that he will be especially cognizant of the beloved clergy who are no longer with them.
Some parishioners will go on to observe the 50th anniversary in April with a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Rome and Assisi, Hunt said. In Rome, they will receive a papal blessing for the anniversary. A parish anniversary photo directory featuring the families of the parish is also in production.