Bathed in a misty drizzle for most of the afternoon, scores of people from across the country joined hundreds of area residents Aug. 17 for the 42nd annual St. Patrick of Armagh modern homecoming picnic in Catawissa.
Annual summer picnics were first held here as early as the 1870s when Father Edward Berry oversaw a parish church that was the cultural center of the community.
Father Berry formed a Benevolent Society, welcomed non-Catholics, led a debating society and operated a lending library with more than 600 books.
The modern St. Patrick’s Preservation Society reinstated the annual picnics in 1972 at a time when the parish buildings were deteriorating and the Archdiocese was considering razing all the buildings except the church.
For 42 years, the modern picnics have continued to attract a loyal group of volunteers whose ancestors were parishioners in the late 1800s and early 1900s before the parish was closed in 1925.
Originally formed to maintain the church cemetery, the Preservation Society has raised more $1 million with the annual picnics and put every cent into restoration of the church, grounds and rectory.
One of the largest crowds in recent memory attended the traditional Mass that opened the 2014 picnic. Most pews were full and an overflow crowd sat in folding chairs and stood along the back wall.
Father Jim Holbrook, St. Bridget of Kildare, Pacific, parish administrator, celebrated the Mass, assisted by Deacon Dr. Michael Suden. The servers were Bethany Mruzik, Young Pedrotti and Josh Mruzik.
Although the perfectly maintained cemetery brings many of the patrons and volunteers to the picnic each August, others come just for the fun of it.
Hannah Duggan, 9, whose family just moved to Robertsville from Waxahachie, Texas, enjoyed a ride on Princess, one of two Haflinger horses that offered individual youngsters a long ride along the cemetery fence line from the bell tower to the Rock Church Road bend.
Hannah’s mother Sharon Millard Duggan grew up in Robertsville and returned with her mother to the annual picnic.
“I saw in the paper that the picnic was today and I just wanted Hannah to see what it is like,” Sharon Duggan said. “I knew we’d see lots of people here.”
As the crowd continued to grow, David Lee hitched the small chestnut colored Haflinger horses, Queen and Princess, to a small buggy that could accommodate several children at once.
The pair spend most of their days on Lee’s Morse Mill farm where they were born helping to mow and rake hay or skid logs, but they are especially gentle with children.
“We take them to the Mapaville State School to work with the handicapped kids,” Lee said. “They’re wonderful with kids.”
While bingo players filled the Pross Pavilion for an afternoon of games, more active patrons filed under the older pavilion, located where the former library once stood, for line dancing to the music of the Missouri Valley Boys, who have provided music for the event for 31 years.
Billy Murphy, St. Patrick’s Preservation Society president, who chairs the annual event with co-chair Bob Conley, circulated through the crowd in his motorized wheelchair.
He was on limited duty last year, after losing part of his leg, which left Conley to take the lead. Picnic patrons and volunteers worried that Murphy would not be able to keep up the strenuous pace of choreographing the Mass, dinners, children’s midway, country store, memorabilia booth and games of chance that make up the annual benefit, but he was back at his usual position, outside the church door as the 11:15 a.m. Mass let out.
Supporters plan family vacations and travel from Texas, Indiana, California and the East Coast to work at the summer festival.
Although many of the workers are up in age, some, others, like the Conley family, which provided 45 workers for this year’s picnic, now bring their grandchildren to the summer festival.
New this year were two large computer screens, courtesy of John Painter. The screen at the dinner ticket window reported how many seats were still available for each of the upcoming seatings, which were listed by the quarter-hour.
Above the line waiting to enter the dining area, another screen announced which seating was being served and whether the line was on time or some would be seated early.
Inside the dining room, members of the Conley clan shuttled rolling carts of family-style meals to tables, refilling bowls as soon as they were empty.
Outside, the Conleys also manage the parking, which now fills the front and side of the church grounds.
The Conley family also is credited with restoration of the rectory, which was built in 1885 and deteriorated to the point that it looked as though the old frame two-story residence was finally beyond saving.
Preservation Society members developed a bold plan. Led by the free labor of the large clan, workers jacked up the tilting building, poured a concrete foundation and built a new substructure. When they set it back down it was still a vision of peeling paint, but straight as a ship.
Two years ago, Bob Conley spearheaded the effort to restore the old priest’s barn, the oldest untouched building on the grounds, built in 1865 for Father Philip Grace who also oversaw two other churches — St. Michael’s Chapel at the Sisters of Mercy Convent near LaBarque creek, which later became St. Joseph Hill infirmary, and Downpatrick, north of Pacific which was the forerunner of St. Bridget’s Parish.
“It’s obvious all of you have a love for this place,” Father Holbrook told the congregation. “What you have done here with this beautiful church and the grounds is remarkable.”