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St. Frances of Rome in Sparta celebrates 50th anniversary

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By The Staff

SPARTA, N.C. — The 50th anniversary of the St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church in Sparta, N.C., was celebrated with a special Sunday Mass on Sept. 25, followed by a reception and fellowship.
The church was first dedicated on Sept. 25, 1966, and brought local Catholics a formal venue for worship in Sparta. St. Frances of Rome was built in memory of Frances Payne Darr, mother of Ed Darr, and sister of Anne Payne Robertson. In the past 50 years, the parish has grown to approximately 152 families.
Over the years, the mission church expanded with the building of the Parish Hall in 1986, and the addition of the cemetery in 2015.
Priests and deacons who were present at the celebration included The Most Reverend Bishop Peter J. Jugis, Bishop of the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.; Monsignor Gerald Lewis (the first pastor of the church); Father Roland Hautz (The last GlenMary pastor); Reverend James Stuhrenberg (The current pastor); Father Jose Camilo Bardenas; Father Aaron (Cory) Catron; Deacon Carlos Medina; and Deacon Lee Levenson.
The church is known throughout the community for various volunteer contributions. Volunteers from the church regularly assist the Solid Rock Food Closet, Alleghany Cares and the Alleghany Pregnancy Center; parishioners serve consistently in community leadership roles and event organizations; and twice a year, the parish holds a roadside cleanup of Highway 21.

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A history of the church
According to the church history, Catholic believers in Alleghany County in the early 1960s traveled to Elkin or North Wilkesboro to attend mass. “In 1961, Fr. Gerald L. Lewis (now Monsignor) was assigned to the Missionary Apostolate in North Wilkesboro and was given charge of the missions in Elkin, Jefferson, and Boone/Blowing Rock. At that time, there was nothing in Sparta,” read a record of the church’s founding in the celebration’s program, the sources of which included St. Frances of Rome Parish Archives, Archives of the Diocese of Charlotte and Diocese of Raleigh, and Monsignor Lewis. It was Lewis brought masses to Alleghany County in 1961: first in the home of J. Lee Johnson, and then Christmas morning mass in the home of Joe and Mildred Savick. Priests offered other masses after that in the homes of other area Catholics; as well as the Sparta Community Center, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Hall, and the cafeteria of the Blue Ridge Shoe Factory, according to the history.
“At a house-warming party for the Savicks, Father Lewis met Ed and Marilyn Darr. Ed and Father Lewis hit it off and, following the party, Ed called his aunt Anne Robertson to tell her that he met a Catholic priest that he really liked,” read the program.
This encouraged Robertson, who had hoped to influence her nephew to become Catholic. She contacted Bishop Waters — whom she’d met through various charity work — and said that she wanted a Catholic church to be built in Sparta in memory of her sister and Ed’s mother, Frances Payne Darr.
At that time, masses were being offered in Sparta on a regular basis. Bishop Waters asked Father Joseph Bumann, who was pastor of St. John in North Wilkesboro in 1964, to search for property in Sparta to build the church. Just after Father Bumann bought the property, he learned that he would be transferred, and that Father Lewis would be the new pastor charged with the building project, according to the history.
“Plans were approved; and after initial difficulty, a local construction company from Roaring Gap was hired to build the church. Interior decoration was directed by noted liturgical designer Ade Bethune,” the program read.
According to the history, Robertson paid for the land, building, and furnishings, with help from several donors. Donors for the church included the Catholic Church Extension Society of Chicago’s donation of $10,000; Geraldine Payne Gilbert and her husband’s $3,000 donation for decorating the sanctuary; Monsignor Lawrence Newman’s $500 donation for the altar, built in memory of his mother; and Ed and Marilyn Darr’s gift of a stained glass window picturing Jesus with the children for the wall above the altar.
The Diocese of Charlotte was formed in 1972, and St. Frances of Rome became a part of the new Diocese. The parish was still served by priests from North Wilkesboro: Father Justin Pechulis, Father Francis Donahue and Father Bede Wattigny. On Feb. 5, 1976, St. Francis of Assisi assumed pastoral care of St. Frances of Rome. The Glenmary Home Missioners provided the priests to serve both Alleghany and Ashe Counties: Father Fid Levi, Father Tony Jablonowski, Father Richard Kreimer, Father John Otterbacher, and Father Roland Hautz.
A fund-raising drive began in the mid-1908s for a multi-purpose education building. The building’s construction was overseen by the Catholic community, with assistance from the Catholic Church Extension Society. Bishop John F. Donoghue blessed and dedicated the structure in October, 1986. The dedication was attended by more than 200 people, according to the program.
Since 1998, the mission church has been served by Father Ronald Marecki, Father WIlbur Thomas (now Monsignor), Father Mark Lawlor, Father C. Morris Boyd, Father Patrick Winslow, and Father Josepth Dinh. In July 2010, Father James Stuhrenberg was assigned and is the current pastor.
The cemetery was added in 2015, with help from local contractors, parishioners, and Boy Scout troop members of Vincent Benish. Bishop Peter J. Jugis dedicated the cemetery on March 11, 2015, according to the records.
Other additions to the church over the years include a Life Garden, built by Elizabeth Flattery, accented by the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue donated by parishioner Ruth Stephenson; a painting of the Stations of the Cross by Vanessa Wright; and several Eagle Scout projects, including the Grotto of Mary beside the church by Paul Kovacich; and a fence, walkway and center crucifix pillar by Vincent Benish for the cemetery. Stained glass windows are in the process of being commissioned from Vanessa Wright Hollifield, the first of which was installed in 2014.

Memories of the church

Several members of the church elected to share some treasured memories of their experience as members in the celebratory program.
Debbie Kovacich, whose family has been part of the church community since 1979, recalled an unexpected incident where a bishop showed unwavering kindness to a member of her family. “When Bishop Curlin visited to confirm a group of our high school youth, including our son Paul, he graciously gave his personal card to each of them, asked them to consider the vocational path God had in store for them, and told them he was available to them at any time,” she said.
When she and her husband took an overnight trip some time later, she came home to find out that her son had called the bishop at around 11 p.m. while they were gone. “Our confident Confirmand had called the Bishop’s personal residence (which was the number on the card), had the Bishop himself answer the phone, and His Excellency sweetly talked to my ‘home alone’ son for about twenty minutes. It’s nice to have friends you can count on!”
Paul Kovacich also had a memory to share, recalling to the day of his first confession at age 7. Leading up to his first Communion, he and the others were told to find a large rock on the church grounds to drop into a bin, signifying letting go of the weight of their sins; but when he was first to drop the rock into the bin, he found that a large skillet had been placed at the bottom. “Now, up until this point I had been taught to never be disruptive in Mass, particularly during prayer or meditation. I was terrified that my rock would hit the skillet and make a noise comparable to that of a high speed crash,” he said.
Instead of dropping the rock, he tried a more silent approach. “I doubled over, sticking my head and shoulders fully down into this bin trying to minimize the impact,” he said. Afterwards, he learned that the skillet also had a purpose: to magnify the sound of their sins being let go to the parish. “You could say a lot of things about me, but you can never accuse me of disturbing the reflection of a fully silent church congregation!”
Chris Gailey, who became the administrative assistant six years ago, has many treasured memories of the church: including potlucks and picnics, Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day, and visits in the office. “I am very thankful for God bringing my family to the mountains and to this wonderful parish,” Gailey said.
While many who served the church attended the 50th anniversary celebration, a few left words of encouragement along with their apologies for their absence.
Father Ron Marecki, who was unable to attend due to commitments at his parish, served as a pastor to the church for six months in 1998. “I have always had great memories of how special the parish and parishioners are. May God bless all of the St. Frances parish family, and your current pastor,” said Marecki.
Father Wil Thomas congratulated the church in his apology for his absence, stating, “I so enjoyed my short time as parochial administrator for the community back in 1999. May the Lord continue to bless and grow the Church of St. Frances of Rome!”

St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church is located at 29 Highland Dr. in Sparta, N.C. For more information about the church, call (336) 372-8846.