A Wise County church will celebrate more than a century of services Sunday.
St. John the Baptizer Catholic Church will commemorate its 125th anniversary with a countywide Mass and dinner at 3 p.m. at 1801 Irvin St. in Bridgeport.
The church has seen many changes since it was started in 1889 by coal miners who brought priests from Henrietta to town once a month. Masses were celebrated in people’s homes, since a church wasn’t built yet. The first Mass was at Catherine Conner’s house.
Conner’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Smith, still attends St. John’s today.
“The altar cloth that’s hanging up in the back of the fellowship hall now was the same one used at that Mass, and I still have the chalice that they used, too,” Smith said.
Smith has been attending St. John’s for 78 years. In that time, multiple building extensions have been constructed and 22 priests have come and gone while the church’s Hispanic membership has grown significantly. One thing that hasn’t changed, she said, is the sense of community she feels there.
“I’ll talk to a lot of the visitors that come here, and they’ll say I was the first one that actually talked to them – not like other churches,” she said. “Going here, it’s not like going to a bigger church, where you don’t see the same people twice.”
Other longtime St. John’s members echoed her statement.
JoAnn Mann started attending services at St. John’s in 1970, when she was 26 years old. By that time, the church had a new building and a growing roster of parishioners.
“There’s a long history of people here, and I love them all,” Mann said. She said she likes going to the Spanish Mass the church offers on Saturday nights, even though she isn’t a native Spanish speaker.
“If you go long enough to the Spanish Mass, you learn all the parts in Spanish, and in fact, I sing better in Spanish than I do in English,” she said. “We’re all brothers and sisters in Christ.
“A hug is the same in Spanish as it is in English.”
The church’s welcoming atmosphere is not lost on visitors, office worker Luli Duran said.
“Everyone that comes in here, even the ones from Decatur, they say, ‘It feels more like a church,’ and they say that it feels like home,” she said. “That’s because we’re country people, I guess. We make it feel like home.”
The church has undergone several major renovations since it first opened. Hallway extensions for classrooms, and a larger fellowship hall, were added as the parish grew, and stained glass windows were commissioned in honor of former members who died.
The doors that lead into the church foyer are brand-new, and there is more space in the parking lot than ever before. The ever-growing facility is indicative of the church’s growth, Fr. Thomas Dsouza said.
Dsouza came to Wise County from India 17 months ago, and he said he’s continued to see more new people every Sunday.
“I’ve seen a lot more people join than normal – There’s more Spanish than English, but there’s a lot more people,” he said.
Dsouza said he’s expecting more than 400 people at the anniversary celebration Sunday, which will include a mass at 3 p.m. at St. John’s, followed by a catered meal from Dos Chiles and a presentation of some of the church’s historical artifacts, including the altar cloth and chalice from Smith.
“It should be a great celebration,” Smith said.