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Holy Angels in Avenue, Md., celebrates landmark day with special visit from Cardinal-elect Wilton Gregory of Washington

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Cardinal-designate Wilton D. Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, celebrates Mass Oct. 25, 2020, at Holy Angels Church in Avenue, Md. Four hours earlier he learned Pope Francis named him a cardinal, so it was the first Mass as a cardinal-designate. (CNS photo/Andrew Biraj, Catholic Standard)

AVENUE, Md. — Holy Angels Catholic Church in Avenue in Southern Maryland had two reasons to celebrate Oct. 25.

The church in the Archdiocese of Washington was marking the 250th anniversary of its founding with a special Mass, and for the main celebrant, it was his first Mass since being named a cardinal that morning by Pope Francis, Cardinal-designate Wilton D. Gregory.

The church is near the cradle of U.S. Catholicism, a few miles from St. Clement’s Island, where Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Mass in the English-speaking colonies March 25, 1634, after colonists from England made landfall there.

In welcoming Washington’s archbishop to Holy Angels at the beginning of Mass, Father Stephen Wyble, the parish’s administrator, noted Pope Francis had named him a few hours earlier as a new cardinal, which drew applause from the congregation and a broad smile from him.

The priest called it “a blessing to us and to the archdiocese” to have Washington’s archbishop celebrate his first Mass as a newly named cardinal at Holy Angels.

Cardinal-designate Gregory is the first African American to be named a cardinal for the U.S.

Father Wyble noted the special history of the parish, saying Holy Angels Parish “is the historical ‘descendant’ of the oldest of the Maryland Jesuit missions.”

The neighboring parish, Sacred Heart in Bushwood, began serving Holy Angels as a mission 250 years ago in 1770, he said, and this was the anniversary they were celebrating. In Holy Angels’ first years as a mission, Jesuit priests celebrated Masses in people’s homes.

The first Mass in a newly built Holy Angels chapel was celebrated on the feast of the Guardian Angels, Oct. 2, 1904, and Holy Angels Parish was canonically established in 1906. The current church was built in 1962.

“I am pleased to be with you as you mark this benchmark,” Cardinal-designate Gregory said in his homily to the congregation in the country church made up of people of all ages, including senior citizens and several families with young children.

He commended Holy Angels parishioners for living “the faith of the church with joy and enthusiasm these past 250 years.”

He praised Holy Angels, noting it is known as a “neighborly parish,” where people have been welcomed, loved and respected for 250 years. He said he hopes in the years to come, “this parish will continue to grow in faith and love for God and neighbor.”

“Happy birthday, Holy Angels, at 250 years of age, you look marvelous!” Cardinal-designate Gregory said.

He noted the special historic legacy of the parish, saying: “This is a very important place, historically. It is the bedrock of the beginning of the Catholic faith in our nation. … My prayer is that this is only the beginning.”

After his homily, Cardinal-designate Gregory blessed the new main altar at Holy Angels with holy water and incense.

Choir members sang, “The Church’s One Foundation Is Jesus Christ the Lord,” as Father Wyble and Father Charles Cortinovis, the archbishop’s priest secretary, who previously served as pastor there, put the altar cloth, candles, chalice and book of Mass prayers on the altar.

Small statues of two kneeling winged angels are on both sides of the church’s tabernacle, and on one side of the sanctuary, there is a large statue of St. Michael the Archangel, brandishing a sword against Satan, the fallen angel.

In his remarks earlier, Father Wyble explained the name Holy Angels “was chosen in connection to Father White and the voyagers on the Ark and the Dove, who placed their expedition to the New World in the hands of the Guardian Angels.”

Parishioners at the Mass included Kimmie Gibson, the parish’s coordinator for faith formation, who was joined by her three young children: son Brady, 10, and daughters Maci, 8, and Sadie, 6.

Gibson, 35, noted she has attended Holy Angels Church her entire life, receiving all of her sacraments there, including baptism and first Communion, and she and her husband, Michael, were married there. Now she home schools her children, raising them in the faith.

“It’s really important in today’s world that’s ever changing, it’s important to show my kids this is never changing, our faith, that when times are crazy, we can come here and find peace,” she told the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper.

The parish and region’s Catholic history are important to her, she said, noting that her grandparents were parishioners when the present Holy Angels Church was built in 1962, and she has taken her children to St. Clement’s Island and has gone fishing around the island with them.

Praising the faith of those first Maryland colonists, she said, “They were incredibly brave, coming here and starting that for us, and what a gift we have, and it’s something we should be passing on for generations to come.”

Asked what it meant to her, that the anniversary Mass turned out being on the morning when the pope had named Archbishop Gregory as a new cardinal, Gibson said, “I found myself very emotional. I cried through most of the Mass. It is so incredible that it would be today, on our anniversary.”

Another lifelong Holy Angels parishioner, Millie Huseman, 67, said of the parish: “It’s a community of love. It’s my heart. It’s my life. It’s my heritage.”

Since February 2020, Father Wyble has served as the administrator of both Holy Angels Parish and nearby Sacred Heart Parish in Bushwood, which was canonically established in 1755. Both have about 300 households as parishioners.

“This is a quiet area that has enormous history and enormous faith,” he said.

Both country parishes are known for their twice yearly fundraising dinners that draw patrons from across Maryland and from nearby states. For generations, families at both parishes have grown produce for those dinners and prepared home-cooked meals to support Holy Angels and Sacred Heart parishes.

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting shutdown of public Masses had caused three of those dinners to be canceled this year, but on the day of the anniversary Mass at Holy Angels, Sacred Heart was holding its fall dinner and planned to serve 1,000 drive-through carryout meals at the parish.

For parishioners, preparing and serving these meals is “a practical way of showing their love for the church and the Lord,” the priest said.