The Miraculous Birth of St. Francis Church

Less than 20 years ago there was no Catholic presence in Amherst County, except for a scattering of Catholics who would go outside the county for worship. Now we have a beautiful church in a scenic setting, right by the center of the town, filled at Mass every Saturday, and a popular meeting place for community organizations. How did this happen?

Bishop Sullivan was dreaming of having a church in the county, one of the few in the diocese without a Catholic church, and so did some of the isolated Amherst Catholics. One of them had borrowed a book on church building from the Presbyterian pastors (the Presbyterians were also dreaming about a new church, and they still do). The book advised that a church should be visible and accessible. A photocopy of the page was sent to the bishop but the news soon came that in 1991 Bishop Sullivan has purchased a piece of land on Boxwood Farm Road, away from everything. It upset the layman who had sent the copy. He wrote to the bishop saying: if ever we build a church on this lot we’ll call it Our Lady of the Boondocks. The miracle is that our church on Main Street could not be more visible and accessible- a tribute to a bishop open to suggestions and even to objections, a loving shepherd…

In 1994 several of the scattered Catholics saw in the Catholic Virginian that the bishop was going to be in Amherst on a given week end. They got together and contacted the diocese to suggest a Mass in Amherst. On October 31, 1994 Bishop Sullivan came to celebrate Mass for 17 Catholics at the Anglican Church. He told them to call themselves the Catholic Community of Amherst and to open a bank account. This was followed by occasional Masses, and then monthly Masses then weekly Masses celebrated first by Fr. Naro, then by the Pastor of St Mary’s church in Lovingston. Early in the game we had received the friendly hospitality of Ascension Episcopal Church.

The congregation organized itself with a pastoral council, a planning committee and Jeff Hansen as administrator. We started planning for a church building, raising funds and keeping in touch with Bishop Sullivan about a suitable piece of land. Our Lady of the Boondocks was sold and replaced by, a lot in the Rutledge neighborhood, and then a miracle happened. Bishop Sullivan was able to purchase the choice lot on Main Street. We now had a home in the shape of a white elephant which served as a meeting place.

After several interviews the Planning Committee hired Consolidated Church Services to design the building and supervise its s construction. By that time we had developed into a vibrant, close knit but welcoming community and had already established a Catholic church in the county in the form of a living community. We eagerly pursued plans for building our church. Our Planning Committee worked with Sam our architect and with the diocesan office on a suitable design. Soon we had raised the funds needed to get started, Subcontractors were lined up by Sam, and Jeff had a list of volunteers ready to help out. They were retired members of the church community who called themselves the “over the hill gang”. Most of them had carpentry skills, a few of them highly skilled.

After demolition of the white elephant construction started on October 6, 2004. Volunteers started helping with the foundation work. When the slab had been poured: Sam advised that the framing subcontractor would be a few weeks late and asked if we wanted to get started until the sub was ready. The reply was “why not”. We got stated but then kept going and the sub was out of the job. We would work every day from Monday to Friday, from 8 AM to 3 PM under the able leadership of Sam, then of Bob Vincent of the same architect firm. We had our coffee break, and each day one of the ladies of the church would treat us to a full course lunch. In spite of the hard work and occasional bitter cold we did gain some weight. We also had three champagne parties to celebrate three milestones in construction: completion of the roof, completion of the drywall, and completion of the church on May 19. We have remained friends ever since. Younger parishioners who had jobs joined the “Saturday crew”.

The original plan had been to finish the sanctuary but only build the frame of the two wings. But because we contributed some two thirds of the labor we had the funds and manpower to finish everything.

That was five years ago. Since that time we have graduated from a mission church of St Mary’s church, we have become a full fledged parish and Fr. Kelly was appointed as Pastor in 2005. We have also built our storage shed and picnic pavilion on land donated by a parishioner, added a nicely landscaped columbarium, all with volunteer work. And everything has been paid up, enabling us to contribute to the support of two churches in need, and contribute to local charities.

A number of the founding members of St. Francis remain active, handling the maintenance of the building and grounds, all without fanfare. This has been a unique experience, a high point in my life. I feel privileged to have been offered the opportunity to help implant the church in Amherst County.

A spirit of service to the community guided the conception and the birth of our church. It is my hope that this spirit will remain alive and well, so that our St. Francis of Assisi church will remain an instrument of peace ad love n Amherst County.

St Francis of Assisi church in Amherst is an illustration of what lay initiative can achieve if given a chance.

Contributed by A member of the Over the Hill Gang, April 2009

St. Francis is a Generous Parish

One of the many wonderful aspects of our church community has been our ability to finance not only our needs, but also those of the greater community. As we approach our anniversary, we should just now be paying off the loan that was borrowed to pay for our $545,000.00 building. But due to hard work, careful planning and generous contributions, we were able to pay off our loan in 2006, just eighteen months after the building was completed! Quite an accomplishment for a small parish!

In addition to financing our building construction, we have supported many community organizations and local charities. From 2004 to 2009 our parish has been involved in many different sponsorships, fundraising and support for many different local charities. Some of those charities include Habitat for Humanity, Amherst County Domestic Violence, Girls on the Run, Holy Cross Regional Catholic School, Mental Health of Central Virginia, programs for senior adults in Amherst County, Relay for Life, Parish Partnership and Senior Bingo. We have also been generous to our diocese collections from Respect Life to Retired Religious.

Total Diocesan Collections: Over $17,000.00 in the last 5 years

(Includes Catholic Relief Services, Peter’s Pence, Catholic Home Mission, etc.)

Outreach: Over $18,500.00 in the last 5 years

(Includes the above mentioned charities as well as emergency help for families in need; does not include our Jesse Tree program where gifts are purchased by parishioners)

Fundraising: Almost $50,000.00 in the last 5 years
(Proceeds from the annual yard/bake/plant sale, the annual spaghetti dinners and our craft bazaars in 2005/2006. These were started as fundraisers to offset the church building expenses; since 2006, a majority of the proceeds have supported our outreach projects.)

In the past three years we have built our picnic pavilion and paved our St. Francis garden, all with the help and financial support of our parishioners.

We have consistently met our financial obligations to the Diocese of Richmond and paid all of our incurred expenses while maintaining a fund for emergencies.

We have grown in numbers! Starting with 61 registered households in 2004, we currently have 85 with a membership of 175 people ranging in ages 2 months to 93 years of age.

Submitted May 2009 for the 5 year anniversary celebration in the new building