For The Dialog
REHOBOTH BEACH – Connie Benko knew she would eventually join her husband and children in the Catholic faith. “I was waiting for the perfect time,” she said.
After the family moved to Rehoboth Beach 17 years ago, they started attending St. Edmond Church. Drawn by the camaraderie of the parishioners and the parish’s “very open and welcoming spirit,” she realized it was where she wanted to become Catholic. She was received into the church 11 years ago at St. Edmond.
Last Sunday, Benko was among parishioners who flooded the church, filling its seats and lining its side aisles to celebrate the church’s 75th anniversary. St. Edmond is named for Bishop Edmond Fitzmaurice, who dedicated the church on Sept. 1, 1940.
Bishop Malooly celebrated the anniversary Mass. Among the concelebrants were Father William Cocco, pastor; former pastors Fathers Joseph Piekarski and Ray Forester; associate pastor Father Christopher Hanley, and Father Thomas Peterman, who grew up in St. John the Apostle in Milford when St. Edmond was a mission of that parish.
Bob Boyle, who attended the placement of the church’s cornerstone and remains a parishioner, also attended the Mass.
St. Edmond’s is the third church in Rehoboth Beach. An original chapel built on beachfront property purchased by the diocese in 1905 proved too small for the summer visitors, and a frame church was built in 1906 and named St. Agnes-by-the-Sea. Both churches were across King Charles Avenue from the present church. As the number of Catholics in the area continued to increase, the need for a new church became evident.
In 1952, St. Edmond’s was raised to parish status. The parish operated a Catholic school from 1954 to 1959.
In his homily, Bishop Malooly noted that Pope Francis has said, “It’s not just Jesus and me, it’s Jesus, myself, and everyone else.”
“For the believer,” the bishop said, “there can be no strangers.”
Such an attitude leads Catholics to reach out to serve others.
“It’s what we are about as a parish,” Bishop Malooly said. “You have a very joyful and welcoming parish here.”
After Mass, Father Forester, who was pastor for 13 years before he retired in 2013, described how St. Edmond’s setting in this summer resort town contrasts it from most parishes in the diocese.
St. Edmond’s serves three distinct groups, he said.
“We have core parishioners; we have summer-time parishioners, and then we have our visitors.”
Core parishioners are those who live in the area year-round; summer-time parishioners are those who spend large portions or most of the summer at the beach, and the visitors are tourists here on a short-term basis.
St. Edmond’s, like other parishes, gears up in late summer for a full fall, winter and spring schedule of religious education, RCIA and other ministries. But come late spring, as “most other parishes slow down for the summer travel season, we get busy in a different way.”
Joan Hart Andrews, who moved to the area from Wilmington two years ago, has been a member of each of the three groups of churchgoers identified by Father Forester. As a child growing up in Wilmington, and later with her own children, Hart would come to the beach for a week or two each summer.
Thirteen years ago she bought a house here and started coming down on a more regular basis. Now, she is a core parishioner; her firm, A Little Bit of Heaven, catered a reception that followed the anniversary Mass.
She has seen the number of summer parishioners and visitors increase dramatically over the years.
“There weren’t as many people” when she would come as a child and then with her children, Andrews said. “You could always find a seat” for Mass.
The parish almost doubles the number of weekend Masses, from five to nine, during the summer beach season. The summer Masses almost always have people lining the sides of the church as they did for the anniversary Mass.
Besides the extra Masses, the parish reaches out to visitors in other ways. It hosts weekly dinners for the summer International Student Outreach Program, sponsored by the Lewes Rehoboth Association of Churches, for foreign students who come to the area to work.
Theresa Tumini, who has lived in Rehoboth beach since 1990, had often visited the town from her home outside of Philadelphia to visit her sister.
“It was just a lovely church,” Tumini said of her recollections of coming to St. Edmond’s while visiting. “The people were wonderful. Everyone was so friendly.”
She quickly became immersed in parish ministries, washing and ironing vestments worn by priests and deacons and the altar linens used on the altar; and working with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which operates a food pantry and works with a thrift store.
Benko also “jumped in with both feet” after becoming Catholic. She now chairs the Rite of Christian Initiation program and liturgy committee. She headed the committee that organized the year-long anniversary celebration. Among the special events were a parish mission, Christmas concert, Mardi Gras celebration, parish Seder Supper, a trip to Gettysburg, Pa., and Emmitsburg, Md., a parish barbecue, and closing of a commemorative time capsule.
“This is such an amazing parish,” Benko said. “My husband died seven years ago, so this is really my family now.”