For The Dialog
SALISBURY, Md. — The value of a new, outdoor gathering space for St. Francis de Sales parishioners became apparent quickly after Father Ed Aigner blessed the circular area on June 1.
“May this space bring us closer together as we come together as a community of Christ,” Father Aigner prayed during the blessing. “Pray that this space will build community among us.”
“We’re showing that it’s doing what they hoped it would,” Helen Darmetka said later as she sat on a bench with fellow parishioners Jim and CC Rosenfelder.
“We didn’t even know each other” before meeting on the bench, said Jim Rosenfelder.
Nearby Angela Amarachukwu Benedicts eyed the people mingling after Mass to chat with one another and took in the ambience of the gathering space.
“Wow! It’s beautiful and it’s lovely,” said Benedicts, a parishioner for 11 years. “It brings you a sense of community.”
Building community after Mass has been a challenge at St. Francis, which has almost 2,400 registered families. The front steps led to sidewalks to the parking lot and a giant slab of uninviting concrete that “was cracking in places and needed to be fixed,” Father Aigner said.
Can’t miss the space
Benedicts noted that the parish sometimes had gatherings in the church basement after Mass, but many people would forget as they left Mass. Now when they go out the main exit they can’t miss the gathering space.
It abuts the steps to the front of the church, on the area previously covered by a concrete slab.
Now the space is filled with earth-toned tiles encircled by a small wall on either side, but open to the church and to a sidewalk leading to Riverside Drive. A number of small cherry trees, which in the spring should sport pink blossoms, surround the gathering space.
Susan Conway believes the space will naturally draw people, “on the nice days, anyway.” As she looked around the attractive, inviting area she wondered about the various ways it might be used. “I think possibilities will emerge as time goes on. It would be wonderful for weddings, especially.”
The red brick used for the wall nearly matches the red brick of the church.
“It looks like it’s always been here,” Conway said.
“Of course, you can’t exactly match something that is 50 years old,” architect John Van Fossen of Florida, who grew up in Salisbury and planned the site.
‘Sustaining Hope’ idea
Father Aigner, who retires later this month after 16 years as pastor at St. Francis, said a parishioner suggested the gathering space as parish leaders developed plans for its part of the “Sustaining Hope for the Future” campaign to raise $28 million for the diocese. They decided to set a goal of $1.7 million, including $600,000 for the parish’s diocesan commitment and $1.1 million to complete the second and third floors of the Philip and Barbara Long Parish Center. Those floors were built as shell space when an earlier campaign raised enough money to build the center and finish its first floor. The center was dedicated in 2009.
One parishioner told Father Aigner there “needed to be something exciting” beyond completing the shell space to build interest in the capital campaign. “He came out of Mass one day and said, ‘You know, we really need a California-style gathering space.”
From there everything fell into place. That parishioner, who wants to remain anonymous, helped underwrite the cost and much of the work and materials were donated, Father Aigner said. He described the out-of-pocket cost to St. Francis as minimal.
As she sat on the bench with her new friends the Rosenfelders, Darmetka reflected on Father Aigner’s tenure as pastor.
“There’s certainly been some accomplishments during his time here,” she said. “I think it’s going to be Father Aigner’s legacy, the new parish center and all of this taking place while he was pastor.”