Fr Richard Gerbino was appointed as the first Pastor of the new church inVineland. Before his parish was a week old, Fr. Gerbino made arrangements for Sunday Masses in the auditorium at Landis Junior High School and Holy Day Masses in the American Legion Hall. After only a few weeks he rented a small home at 109 Elmer Street to serve as a parish office, his living quarters, and a Chapel for daily Masses.
The Ladies of St Francis was the first society established at the new church, followed shortly after by the Holy Name Society which served the spiritual and social needs for the men of the parish.
Fr. Gerbino conducted a census of the new parish and discovered that the parish consisted of 1500 families, over double the original estimate of 700 families. He also conducted a search for a suitable piece of land for sitting the growing parish community. With the help of Msgr Hickey, pastor of Sacred Heart, he found a 10-acre parcel very close to the intersection of Delsea Drive and Chestnut Ave.As a gift to the new parish, Sacred Heart purchased the land, a most generous and heart-warming gift from the mother parish.
Over the first year of existence, Mass attendance increased dramatically, so the Bishop sent another priest to assist on Sunday mass. By April 28, 1962, less than a year later, Fr John Conner took up residence at the Elmer Street home as the first permanent assistant.
After much prayer and consultation, the young parish decided to construct a school as the first building at their new home. Ground breaking ceremonies for the school were held on May 13, 1962, not even a year after the parish was conceived. The design for the school included an auditorium for Sunday Mass, parish offices and living space for clergy – truly an all-purpose building.
The remainder of 1962 was full of fervent activity, with many fundraisers to raise funds for the new building. These included “Pennies from Heaven, “The St. Francis Plan”, card parties, macaroni dinner’s, barbecues, and all sorts of social events, which not only served to raise capital but brought the new congregation together with a common goal of building a parish.
Fr. Gerbino constantly urged the contractor to finish the building in time for Christmas. The response was so incredible that on Christmas Eve, 1962 – a mere 7 ½ months after ground breaking ceremonies were held – Fr Gerbino celebrated Midnight Mass in the new church-auditorium. Over one thousand enthusiastic and grateful parishioners attended the first Mass at St. Francis of .Assisi. Several weeks later, Archbishop Damiano dedicated the multi-purpose building on January 20, 1963.
With the completion of construction for the new school, the parish needed teachers. The Daughters of Mercy of Villa Rosello, Newfield agreed to staff the new school. Consequently, the parish energies turned towards the construction of a Convent on site to house the teachers. In the interim the sisters commuted from the mother house.
Registration for the new school continued throughout the spring and summer of 1963. On September 4, 1963 the school opened with 267 boys and girls in smiling faces and new uniforms. Two lay teachers supplemented three nuns to serve as faculty. Mother Louise served as the first principal. However, in October Mother Louise’s post as Vice Provincial of the community forced her to give up her assignment as principal. Sister Magdalene, one of the teachers, assumed the responsibilities as principal.
Shortly after the school opened, a Parent-Teacher Organization was founded to support the mission of the school and to raise funds for school activities, sports, and student social events. The PTA was active and contributed generously of their time and talent throughout the life of the school.
Around this time the need for societies to render service for the church also became apparent. These included ushers, altar boys, and a choir to assist and contribute to divine services. These groups were started, and remain active through today.
In the mid 1960’s, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine was established to teach the Catholic religion to young parishioners who attended public schools. Both nuns and lay teachers assumed duties in these classes. Also, The Catholic Youth Organization provided a healthy social outlet for the young folk with sports, picnics, dances, and all manner of social activities.
The first Parish Council was established in 1968. The Council undertook the tasks of involving the laity in the liturgy and of advising the Pastor as designated in Vatican II.
One of the most important activities of the diocesan House of Charity is the education of mentally handicapped children in a religious atmosphere. To support this goal, theMarianCenter, opened at St. Francis in the fall of 1965. Sister Mary Anthony, a Daughter of Mercy, taught the first class in a classroom atSt.FrancisSchool. The Center continued under the auspices of the parish until the fall of 1984, when it moved toMillville.
As the parish continued to grow, the need for a church and rectory became evident. In the fall of 1966, plans for a church and rectory were undertaken, and the Architects Anderson Saridakis and Ronald Angelo were engaged. The new church was to be of contemporary design in the spirit of Vatican II and built of Norman brick to harmonize with theParishCenterand the Convent.
Archbishop Damiano’s sudden death on October 2, 1967 delayed plans until Pope Paul VI appointed the Most Reverend George Guilfoyle Bishop of Camden. Also, the plans were modified to conform to the new liturgy recommended by Vatican II.
Bishop Guilfoyle approved the plans, and a contract was signed with Capri Construction Company ofVinelandfor the building of the church and rectory with the lowest bid of $530,400. Construction started as soon as weather permitted in the early spring of 1968.
The rectory, located at the north of the church was designed with adequate office space for the Pastor and associates on the first floor, together with it a dining room and kitchen. The second floor was set aside as priest’ private living quarters with a large common living room and a bedroom, study, and bath for each priest. The building also accommodated the needs of visiting clergy in a first-floor suite. A basement, which was later divided and finished, developed room for small parish meetings.
On the eighteenth anniversary of Father Richard’s ordination, June 7, 1970 Bishop Guilfoyle dedicated the new church and rectory at a con-celebrated mass which was attended by a large crowd of parishioners and many city officials.
With the completion of the buildings, the parish was flourishing. The school was doing well; societies were meeting the social needs of men, women, and young people and serving the parish with some financial help. Most of all, the spiritual development of St. Francis Parish began to reap a rich harvest in the four young men and one young woman who answered God’s call to serve Him in the religious life.
Mark Cavagnaro, son of Mr. and Mrs. George Cavagnaro, was ordained inRome, on December 18, 1970. Father Cavagnaro celebrated his first Mass at St. Francis in May, 1971.
John Burton, son of Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Burton, was ordained in St. Francis Church by Bishop Guilfoyle on May 20, 1972. Father Burton Celebrated his first Mass in St. Francis Church on May 21. He was the first young man of the Camden Diocese to be ordained in his own parish church.
John Cavagnaro, younger brother of Father Mark Cavagnaro, was ordained in St. Francis Church by Bishop Guilfoyle on April 24, 1975. Father Cavagnaro said his first Mass at St. Francis Church on April 26, 1975.
Nathan DeMarco was a resident of Rosenhayn, but an adoptive son of St. Francis where his vocation was encouraged by Papa Rich and Sr. Claudia. Father DeMarco was ordained by Bishop Guilfoyle in St. Francis Church on May 26, 1978, and his first Mass was celebrated here as well.
Sister Kathleen Burton, younger sister of Father John Burton, was received into the community of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Chestnut Hill,Philadelphia,Pennsylvania, on September 12, 1968. Sister took her final vows for Christ on July 25, 1976.
One of the happiest occasions in the history of St. Francis Parish was the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Father Richard’s ordination on June 7, 1977. Father Richard was ordained in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception inCamdenby Bishop Bartholomew Eustace on June 7, 1952, and assigned to the Diocese of Camden. Father’s family, friends, and parishioners joined him at an anniversary Mass in St. Francis Church in the morning. In the evening, the Parish celebrated the anniversary at a dinner at the Savoy Inn. Members of the parish had prepared a booklet which illustrated Father’s early life and schooling inBrooklyn, his seminary years, and early priesthood days.
After a tenure of almost 20 years, Father Richard was succeeded by Father Carmen Carlone who took over leadership of the parish on December 1, 1980. Fathers Sean McArdle and Richard Lodge were appointed associates, and later they were succeeded by Fathers Ty Rohloff and Frank Hudson.
Moving into the eighties, the laity became much more involved in the work of the parish, and volunteers became important in every aspect of parish life. Fr. Carmen reactivated and reorganized the Parish Council in February, 1981. The Council, made up of 50 religious and lay representatives of the parish, was charged with the responsibility of assisting the Pastor in determining the spiritual, educational, personnel, and financial needs of the parish. The Council, through its committee structure began a planning process to define immediate and long-range goals. Carrying out the plans on a priority basis started.
Until mid-1983 emphasis was placed on major maintenance projects to repair and upgrade our church, school, rectory, and convent. These expenditures necessitated substantial fund-raising, and parishioners responded enthusiastically to promote successful annual events: carnivals, automobile raffles, dinners, fashion shows, magazine sales, dances and a variety of smaller fund-raising projects.
As activities in the parish increased, there was a growing demand for more usable space in the parish buildings. Storage rooms were added to the school, and the second floor area was redesigned to improve teaching facilities. The large basement area of the rectory was transformed into a meeting room for parish organizations.
The 1980’s reflected a period of spiritual renewal in St. Francis ofAssisiparish. The sacramental programs for children encouraged parental participation. The religious education for adults and the youth grew in numbers and effectiveness. The ministries of Music, Lectors, Ushers, Pastoral Care, Educational and Eucharistic Ministers brought together dedicated and devoted service the religious and laity. The many talents of our religious and laity merged in a shared leadership that promoted a unified spiritual community.
The activity level in the school and youth flourished with the opening of a Pre-School, several CYO basketball championship teams, an active cheerleading squad, parish sponsored Girl and Boy Scout troops, and many local Science Fair winners. In a competition to reward computers to schools based on collecting grocery receipts, Saint Francis was recognized with the highest total on the East Coast, far outdistancing schools with over double our enrollment.
In the late 80’s school enrollment grew, leading to the need for additional classrooms. Two additional classrooms were dedicated on February 12, 1989 with the aide of several Parish volunteers who donated professional and construction services.
The late 80’s also reflected a period of community growth and outreach with a blossoming of activities such as parish trips, Lenten dinners, Bible Times Vacation Bible School, Christmas bazaars, dinner shows, and an annual Agape Dinner. St. Francis also started an internal Pre-Cana team which provided weekends twice annually for couples planning to be married.
One of the crowning achievements during Fr Carmen’s tenure as pastor was the Mortgage burning for church on October 7, 1990 after a long and successful fundraising drive. It was so nice to finally be free of debt.
Also in the early 90’s, the Diocese began sending candidates to the Priesthood to our Parish as part of their preparation process. Our first candidate was from Poland, Peter Szamocki, In addition to working on parish activities, our Parish helped him improve his skills in English. He was ordained in early 1992 and celebrated his First Mass here on April 6, 1991.
Afterwards we were blessed with another candidate, Peter Joyce. One of our principal roles for Peter was to help him with his final discernment on his vows. After much prayer, he was ordained in the spring of 1992 and celebrated his First Mass here in May, 1992.
On February 2, 1992, Msgr Pat Chiarelli succeeded Fr Carmen as pastor. In early spring of the same year, Msgr Pat conducted a Parish Census. In February 1993 our Parish held Renew—a five year long Parish Mission focusing on small group discussion groups.
In late 1997 the need to repair the roofs became obvious, so Msgr Pat began a fundraising drive to raise the 280 thousand dollars that would be necessary to complete the repairs. After a successful campaign the roofs were repaired in spring 1998.
After a few months when Msgr Kennedy served as interim Administrator, Fr. Ernest Soprano succeeded Msgr Pat as Pastor on May 1, 2000. Later that year, on October 1, 2000 the parish celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Vows celebration for our beloved Sr. Tarcisia. She is still like the energizer bunny!
In spring 2004 the Diocesan School Consolidation Process began to insure the future of our schools which were struggling with declining enrollment and increased costs. At the conclusion of the study the Bishop decided to merge our School with Bishop Schad School at Sacred Heart. June, 2007 marked our final graduating class.
In the fall of 2005 the Diocesan Parish Merger Process began due to declining numbers of Priests, declining numbers of active parishioners, and financial pressures. As a result of this process Msgr Victor Muro replaced Fr Soprano as Priest Convener in August 2009. On October 23, 2009, per a Proclamation from Bishop Galante, the merger between Saint Francis and Immaculate Heart of Mary was finalized, and a new Parish to be known as Divine Mercy Parish was created. Msgr Victor Muro named Pastor.
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