BELLEFONTE – St. Helena’s has served the Bellefonte area north of Wilmington for 75 years, and last Saturday, Nov. 5, Bishop Malooly celebrated the 5 p.m. Mass to help the parish mark the anniversary.
A dinner in the parish hall followed Mass. On Sunday, Nov. 6, there was an afternoon of remembrance at 3 p.m. for all deceased parishioners.
Father Stanley Russell, who has been St. Helena’s pastor since 1994, said the parish continues as a stabilizing force in the area.
“The church remains a very significant presence in the community,” he said. “Many people find a sense of strength and hope in coming to worship.”
The parish is also known for its strong social ministry and outreach, he added.
Bob Conte, executive officer of the parish council and a member of St. Helena’s for 61 years, said the outreach program is “very viable. They have a lot of people in the parish working in outreach, and we supply a lot of things that are needed by people in the neighborhood.”
He said it is a very friendly parish, where “everybody pitches in. Everybody gets along.”
Louise Moyer and her husband, Gerald, have been members of the parish for 43 years. Two of their daughters graduated from St. Helena’s School, and their children received all their sacraments except baptism at the church. The Moyers, both 76, have been Eucharistic ministers for more than 20 years and volunteer in a number of activities there.
“We’re involved with the carnival, which is absolutely great, and the fall festival,” she said. “We’re still very active in everything. I think we’re more active workers now than when the kids were growing up.”
Moyer said she loves the atmosphere that surrounds the parish.
“When you walk into the church, the Holy Spirit seems to fill you up and make you want to deepen your faith. It’s hard for me to say. It’s like a calming feeling, and there’s the support of the people around you,” she said.
Conte, who graduated from the school, said the church has been a big part of his family’s lives for many years. “It’s sort of the center of a lot of things. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Starting with 65 families
St. Helena’s grew out of Christ Our King Parish in Wilmington in the years before World War II. Bishop Edmond FitzMaurice authorized its establishment as the population in the city spread north. Bishop FitzMaurice, at the dedication of the original church in 1936, noted that the land, the church and rectory were made possible by the Catholic Diocese Foundation, which was created by John J. Raskob. The church was placed under the protection of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. Helena also happened to be name of Raskob’s wife, and the naming of the parish was also a tribute to her on the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary, according to parish documents.
Father Joseph H. Irwin, who was pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul in Easton, Md., spent two years at St. Helena’s as the founding pastor before returning to Easton. Other pastors have included Father Edward A. Dougherty, Msgr. Francis Desmond, Father Charles McGinley, Father Richard Reissmann, Father Roy Pollard, Father William Melnick and Father Russell.
The parish began with 65 families, but by 1949, when St. Helena School opened, there were 505. Father Dougherty began planning for a school as early as 1940, but World War II put those plans on hold for a few years. The Sisters of St. Joseph came to teach at St. Helena’s, and a group of sisters still lives in the convent next to the church. The present convent replaced the original in 1961.
St. Helena School closed in 2008, when it merged with nearby Holy Rosary School to form Pope John Paul II School. The merged school closed this past June. Today, the parish operates a kindergarten and pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds, and, Conte said, the after-school childcare program continues.
Conte said the school’s demise “leaves a big hole. But we have a bigger religious ed program now because the kids still need their religious ed.”
According to Father Russell, the future of the school building is uncertain. The parish hall is in the basement of the building.
The original church building is now a gymnasium. The current church was dedicated in September 1955.