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Church Reflects Changing Springfield

One of the region's largest Catholic parishes turns 25 on Saturday.

Parishioners at St. Bernadette Catholic Church are opening their doors to their neighbors Saturday, Oct. 14, and inviting them join them in the Springfield parish's silver anniversary celebration.

With the help of Bishop Paul S. Loverde, head of the Arlington Diocese, the church is offering a reception that will include photos from the past 25 years, when the congregation moved into the current church on Old Keene Mill Road, said member John Fox.

"The parish itself was formed in 1959, but the church wasn't opened until 1981," said Fox, one of the coordinators of the anniversary celebrations.

In the early days, the church had only a few hundred members. Now, with over 12,000 parishioners, the church is one of the largest in the Arlington diocese, Fox said.

Originally a part of St. Michael's in Annandale, Fox said the parish split off in the late 1950s in conjunction with the opening of St. Bernadette School, which at the time had children in kindergarten through fourth grade. The school opened in 1959 and moved to its current location in January 1961.

Fox, a member since 1962, said he likes attending St. Bernadette for the "spirit of community" he finds there.

"There's plenty of opportunities to participate in religious ceremonies," Fox said, including the graduation ceremonies at the school. "We have lots of interaction with various groups."

A REFLECTION of the changing face of the Springfield area it serves, St. Bernadette now offers a monthly mass in Vietnamese and a weekly Spanish-language service, said Father Kevin Larsen, pastor at the church.

"We are very diverse in terms of people's racial and ethnic backgrounds," said Larsen, who first led services at St. Bernadette as a new priest in 1993. He returned to the church in 2004 after spending seven years at the Church of the Nativity in Burke.

"This is a wonderful parish," said Larsen. "There's a great number of people with different backgrounds, there's a wonderful school with lots of young people. The kids bring the church back to life every year in the fall when they come back."

To celebrate the anniversary, Larsen said a reception will follow a mass by Bishop Loverde on Saturday, at 5:30 p.m., in the community hall of the church.

"We're currently compiling a video of parish pictures and things from when the church was being built," he said.

St. Bernadette has one thing other Catholic churches can't compete with: a wooden altar used by Pope John Paul II during his first visit to the Washington, D.C. area in the early 1980s.

"We were just building this church at the same time of his visit," said Larsen. "After the Pope was here, they were looking for a church to take the altar, chair and pulpit he used. At one time, all three of them were here, but now we still have the altar."

Built out of green, untreated wood, the altar is "still in one piece," he said, protected under a heavy covering.

MEMORIES AND TIES to the early days of the current church building are sure to be subjects of discussion during the celebration.

"I was here at the dedication of the building 25 years ago with my wife," said parishioner Clement Gross. "I look forward to marking the progress of the last 25 years and I'm happy to be a part of it still."

Gross, director of religious education, said he's able to help people meet their own spiritual needs in addition to that of young Catholics.

"Through my office, I am able to introduce people to the life of the church," Gross said.

He has helped to organize the parish's masses in other languages and ESOL classes offered by the Spanish-speaking community, which began two years ago.

"Over the years, we've seen a constant increase in the number of people with Hispanic, Korean and Vietnamese backgrounds," Gross said. "Our diversity brings with it a wealth of awareness of all people and how others worship God and the knowledge of other cultures."

One of the original members of the church, Carol Flournoy, said she and her husband joined St. Bernadette when they moved to Springfield from Ohio in 1959.

"I feel at home here," Flournoy said. "My children all went to school here and I've gotten to know a lot of people over the years. This is our parish and I have no intention of going anywhere else."

While the church has a steady population of young families, parishioners also come from Greenspring Gardens in Springfield, a community for adults over 60, Flournoy said.

Flournoy is looking forward to the anniversary reception and the chance to share fond memories of the past 25 years.

"It's nice to come and think about all the ups and downs that have happened here," she said.