“I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated a Mass where the mayor has been a server,” said Bishop Nelson Perez during the liturgy marking the 75th anniversary of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Tallmadge.
Mayor David Kline, a lifelong member of the parish, was the cross bearer for the liturgical procession on Dec. 21. After Mass, he presented the pastor, Father Michael Matusz, with a proclamation from the city commemorating the anniversary. It was one of several proclamations presented to the parish during its anniversary celebration.
Father Matusz said the parish, which was established during World War II, had its first Mass as a mission church on Oct. 24, 1943 at Tallmadge Town Hall. Cleveland Archbishop Joseph Schrembs formally established the parish on Dec. 8, 1944. Despite the fact that building a church during wartime presented great challenges, Father Matusz said the congregation forged ahead.
Ground was broken for the first church building on May 8, 1945, which was VE (Victory in Europe) Day, or the day the Germans surrendered to Allied troops to end the war in Europe. The building was constructed on donated land on North Road across from Tallmadge High School.
The cornerstone, which remains in a courtyard outside the current church building, was blessed on Aug. 14, 1945, VJ (Victory over Japan) Day – the day the Japanese surrendered to effectively end World War II.
The parish name was chosen on Oct. 7, 1943, the feast day of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. Father Matusz said the significance of the dates for the groundbreaking (VE Day) and the cornerstone blessing (VJ Day) supported the meaning of the parish’s name.
The first Mass in the first church building was celebrated on Dec. 24, 1945 by the pastor, Father James Gallagher. As the parish became more established, various social and religious organizations developed, including the Holy Name Society, Victorian Club, Altar and Rosary Society and the Knights of Columbus.
According to parish records, in 1947 there were 174 members, 63 of whom were younger than 13. The 2019 parish census shows 2,627 members, with 249 younger than 13.
As the parish grew, a larger church building was needed. Ground was broken on May 29, 1966 for a new church complex that included a social hall. The parish continued to thrive with development of a parish council, summer Bible school program, a strengthened music ministry and stronger ties with the Interfaith Group of Tallmadge.
Father Matusz was named pastor in 2013.
“We are drawing on the faithful efforts of so many who have served over these past 75 years as the parish community continues to focus on, grow and strengthen its parish mission, loving God, loving others and making disciples,” Father Matusz said.
“I was 7 years old when he was ordained,” Bishop Perez said, as he gestured to Father John Hengle. Father Hengle served as Our Lady of Victory pastor from 1993 until his retirement in 2013.
The bishop noted that we love signs and may ask God for a sign in a time of need. “This parish has been a sign for 75 years – a sign of God’s presence here in this community,” he said.
Times have changed since Our Lady of Victory Parish was established, the bishop said, but one thing remains constant: the celebration of the Eucharist. Bishop Perez said the story of Christmas does not change, but we do. “Where does Christmas find you this year on your journey,” he asked. “What’s in your heart?”
He referred to the Gospel, which explained how the birth of Jesus came about. Unlike Christmas pageants and theatrical productions, the birth of Christ was messy, the bishop said. He noted that Mary was an unwed teen-age mother who had to explain a suspicious pregnancy to her parents and Joseph, her fiancé.
However, she and Joseph heeded the words of the angel, took a leap of faith and said yes. Then they had to travel and had nowhere to stay when she was ready to give birth, so Jesus was born in a stable.
“And then the young family became refugees. It was a crisis; it was a mess,” the bishop said.
“We like to think all 75 years of this parish were great, but that’s probably not true. There probably were some issues that arose; different pastors had different styles. Yet, in the midst of the ‘messiness’ that we humans sometimes create, there is always the presence of God. In 75 years, lots of things have happened. Activities and people come and go, but one thing that happened here on Dec. 24, 1945 continues to happen: the celebration of the Eucharist,” Bishop Perez said.
The first church, which was built on donated land, no longer exists, but the Eucharist is still celebrated, he said. The bishop further illustrated his point by noting that in the Holy Land, there are layers of churches built on top of each other – Byzantine churches, Crusader churches and current churches at holy sites – with remnants of the previous buildings still visible.
“Maybe in the future, another church will be built here. But what happens at the altar during Mass remains a constant. It’s the reason for which you exist,” he said.
The bishop also shared some of Pope Francis’ thoughts on a parish, which he said is not a religious club. “Jesus never called us to be members. He called us to be disciples. He didn’t ask for volunteers, he went to people and called them to serve as disciples. And sometimes they had to leave their lives behind. Jesus meets us and he doesn’t leave us there – he comes to us.”
He said the pope pointed out a parish is not an outdated institution. Rather, it has flexibility and can adopt new contours -- depending on the flexibility of the pastor – if it proves capable of self-renewal.
“Seventy-five years ago, people had a dream and knew what they had to do. They knew a church is not just a place that you go to, it’s a place from which you’re sent,” Bishop Perez said.
“Who will be sitting in the pews when this parish celebrates its 150th anniversary? That depends on you and your passion that brings you back so this parish can continue to be a place that shares God’s love,” he added.
After the Mass, the bishop mingled with parishioners in the parish hall and posed for photos in front of a special 75th anniversary backdrop that featured a photo of the original church building.