St. Anthony’s celebrates its 75th anniversary

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From left, Joseph Witkowski Jr., Kasey Smith, Anna Witkowski, David Byrne Master of Ceremonies, Jean Beard, Rev. Mark S. Suslenko, Joseph Gomez, Deacon Domenic Stolfi, Jillian Plante, Joseph Bohuski, and Rita Plante celebrated the 75th anniversary of the first Catholic mass in Prospect at St. Anthony’s church July 17.
From left, Joseph Witkowski Jr., Kasey Smith, Anna Witkowski, David Byrne Master of Ceremonies, Jean Beard, Rev. Mark S. Suslenko, Joseph Gomez, Deacon Domenic Stolfi, Jillian Plante, Joseph Bohuski, and Rita Plante celebrated the 75th anniversary of the first Catholic mass in Prospect at St. Anthony’s church July 17.

PROSPECT — One Sunday 75 years ago, Joeseph Gomez stood in front of St. Aedan’s Church in New Haven holding a sign to solicit donations for a new Catholic church in Prospect.

Gomez, who was four years old at the time, and his five older brothers raised $400 that day.

“They felt sorry for the scrubby little kid,” Gomez said.

On July 19, St. Anthony Church in Prospect marked the 75th anniversary of its first mass.

Gomez remembers trailing after his mother, Louise, as she rode up Cook Road on a horse and buggy canvassing families to find out how many Catholics would join their new parish.

A small group of the devout held bake sales and turkey dinners to raise money to give the faithful a home in Prospect.

“Everybody chipped in and raised some funds,” Gomez said.

In early July of 1936, Prospect had no town hall, no large buildings, and the school was not yet completed, according to Gomez. The newly-formed parish had no place to worship. Then people from the Prospect Grange offered the use of their hall for the group’s first mass.

No one on the Grange board was Catholic, he said.

“We thought that was a very noble gesture on their part,” he said.

Father Richard Morrissey celebrated the first mass in the upstairs room at the Grange. Even though the hall was small, it seemed to be overflowing, Gomez recalled.

“My mother bragged about it for years,” he said.

The parish continued to hold masses at the Grange until moving to the newly-completed Community School and occasionally, the police barracks in Bethany.

Eventually, the parish raised enough money to begin construction of their church in 1939, but it wasn’t completed until 1943.

They chose the name St. Anthony because a local family donated the land for church on June 13, the feast of St. Anthony, according to Gomez.

The original church was eventually moved to a more central location at the junction of Route 68 and Route 69, where it is today.

As a lifelong resident of Prospect, Gomez said he saw a lot of changes come to the town.

“As new families came in, it became less of a farm town and more of a bedroom town,” he said.

St. Anthony's Church marked the 75th anniversary of its first mass recently.

New residents brought a supermarket to town, a dentist, doctor offices, and other conveniences, he said.

“St. Anthony’s Church grew with that influx of people,” Gomez said.

Soon, those people overtook the space available.

In 1962, then Pastor Father James O’Dea pushed to build the new and more modern church that exists today, according to Gomez.

“We have a very vibrant parish now,” Gomez said.

Throughout the years, Gomez said he remained active in the church community. He said some of his favorite memories of church life are the Christmas bazaars. His mother had white elephant table and would set a goal to raise $100.

“We used to celebrate every time she made $100 at that table,” Gomez said.

When he goes to church now, Gomez said he sits in his pew and thinks of the times when he was a young boy with his mother.

“I always felt very proud to be a member of a big family gong to a nice church, filling the whole pew out,” he said.

Gomez’s mother was not the only Louise to play an important role in the beginnings of the church. Her friend, Louise Schieffer was there with her every step of the way.

“She and my mother were dear friends and they worked together on so many projects up there and her daughter, Jean Beard, continues today to give that same kind of spirit to the church,” Gomez said.

Schieffer was one of the first religious youth teachers, according to Beard.

“I told them they named the church wrong. They should have named it St. Louise,” Beard said.

Beard grew up in the church as the second of nine siblings.

“We always turned to our church for prayers to be answered,” she said.

She is still active in the church, whether running bingo, the arts and crafts fair, as a member and sometimes officer of the Ladies Guild, baking for bake sales, feeding the poor, or helping others.

“I feel that’s what the lord put me here for, was to help people,” Beard said.

She said she tries to instill those Catholic values in her five children and nine grandchildren.

Growing up, Beard and her sister always helped prepare church dinners, and now her grandchildren are starting to follow in her footsteps, she said.

“We feel that we’ll get our reward one way or another,” Beard said.

She said the doors of the church were always open if she needed someone to talk to. “God always has the answer for you,” she said.

Gomez felt the same way.

“I find the church to be a great source of comfort in my life,” Gomez said.

On July 17, the church marked its 75th anniversary by celebrating a solemn mass at 11:15 a.m., followed by a reception in the courtyard. Jean Beard and Gomez participated in the mass as gift bearers, bringing water and wine to the priest to be consecrated, according to Lisa White, administrative assistant to the pastor.

The solemn mass is a more traditional liturgy, according to David Byrne, who served as the master of ceremonies during the mass. The solemn mass uses incense as a symbol of purification, has more participants, more sacramentals, and longer prayers, he said.

Most parishes reserve solemn masses for feast days and special occasions, although they can be celebrated at any time, Byrne said.

“It increases the level of dignity to signify the importance of the occasion,” he said.

The mass was well-attended, according to Father Mark Suslenko, the current pastor to the parish’s 1,800 families.

“We have a strong community spirit. We have a strong mission to reach out and help one another, to help our community. There’s a warmth and a charm that speaks well of the members of this community,” Suslenko said.

Suslenko, who has served at St. Anthony since the fall of 2005, said he plans to continue developing ministries and assessing and responding to the parish’s needs as they arrive.

“Prospect is a community that is continually growing, and St. Anthony Parish intends to be here to meet the needs of this community well into the future,” Suslenko said.