HILTON HEAD — St. Francis by the Sea Church is celebrating its 25th anniversary. For this special occasion, Father Michael Oenbrink, pastor, and parishioners received an apostolic blessing from Pope Benedict XVI and a proclamation from Thomas D. Peeples, mayor of Hilton Head Island.
“Hopefully, it is a year of grace for our parishioners,” Father Oenbrink said. “We have the Year of St. Paul; we are a pilgrimage site throughout the year; we have the Papal Blessing plus the additional avenues of the indulgences. It should be a wonderful year of blessings for the parish.”
St. Mary of Namur Sister Kathleen Kane, pastoral associate, finds the anniversary year very exciting.
“There is tremendous spirit. The whole year is a testimony to the founding members and to all who have followed them,” she said. “We had a wonderful beginning at inauguration with the Feast of St. Francis, our patron saint, celebrated at all the Masses during the Oct. 4 weekend.”
A committee is planning and organizing events for the upcoming celebrations.
St. Francis by the Sea grew from less than 100 members in 1984 to nearly 2,000 today. It was founded under the leadership of Father Joseph Majewski, who wanted a family oriented and community friendly church, according to Joan Carey, a parishioner.
“Father Joe was a wonderful human being,” she said.
The growing popularity of Hilton Head included a large Catholic population which led to the need for a second church. People met for Mass at the Crazy Crab Restaurant that they fondly called “the church of the holy crab.”
In an interview with The Miscellany, Nina McCunniff, another founding member, said Father Majewski brought the sacramentals to the restaurant in a suitcase and set up an altar to celebrate Mass. After Mass, fellowship included a cup of coffee on the restaurant’s deck overlooking Jarvis Creek.
By 1988, the parish outgrew the restaurant and Mass was held at Hilton Head Primary School until the Diocese of Charleston approved the purchase of land on Beach City Road. A groundbreaking was held in March 1990, followed by the first Mass on March 3, 1991 with 900 people. The new church was named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.
Many people were involved in making plans for the church building, the family center, rectory, office, and columbarium. Mary Gaudette’s late husband was one of them.
“For Claude, it was a labor of love,” Gaudette said.
They joined the church in 1987, and it became an anchor for their lives.
McCunniff said everyone worked hard and shared the responsibility of building the new church.
“You don’t feel a part of something unless you do something for it,” McCunniff said. “The more people give, the better they are going to like where they are. It’s our church home, and we love it.”
Joan Carey helped establish many of the church ministries, including the St. Francis Thrift Shop, which raises money for the parish, school and community. She credited Father Majewski as being a big influence.
“He was wonderful,” she said. “Everybody loved him. He was a personable, kind, and generous man and open to everybody’s ideas.”
Carey said St. Francis by the Sea was “the” church on the island because its outreach was so generous.
St. Francis has 57 ministries that cover six areas: prayer and worship, Christian formation, stewardship, evangelization, community building, and social outreach, as defined by former Charleston Bishop Robert J. Baker in a 2006 pastoral plan for the diocese.
The church pastoral council published a booklet, “The Spiritual Meaning of the Art and Architecture of Our Parish Church,” which is dedicated to past and present members. It was researched and written by Maureen Schaerfl and describes art, architecture and sacred objects of the church. It also includes a brief history, photographs, and pen and ink sketches.
In the church’s courtyard garden stands an Italian bronze statue of St. Francis of Assisi with animals and birds. Directly behind it is the church building. Above its triple front doors is a round, stained glass window featuring a dove, which is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
A reproduction of St. Francis’ San Damiano Cross decorated with scenes from the life of Jesus hangs over the doors of the sanctuary. The original 12th century cross is in the Church of St. Clare in Assisi, Italy.
The interior of the sanctuary is built with heavily grained light wood ceiling beams. Below are natural wood pews that form a half circle. The altar and furniture are cherry wood.
Parishioner Gloria Rohr designed the sanctuary furnishings, the baptismal font and the Stations of the Cross. The 14 bas-relief panels were formed in plaster and fiberglass by Adam Schultz, a senior at Savannah College of Art and Design.
A 12-foot crucifix, made by local artist Wayne Edwards, is on the wall above the altar. The seven-foot figure of Jesus on the cross is sculpted wood.
Schaerfl sees St. Francis as lovingly designed and constructed.
“When I attend Mass, the frenetic pace of daily life slows and a spiritual side surfaces,” she said. “In this beautifully simple church, it is easy to be on your knees and thank God for his blessings, pray for others and celebrate the Eucharist with community worshippers.”
Father Oenbrink was named administrator in June 2005. In addition to his pastoral duties, his schedule includes meeting with the pastoral council and committees on finance, liturgy, school board and more. Currently the parish and school are involved in a five-year planning process.
Since Father Oenbrink’s arrival, a new music and arts building became a reality and received an official blessing Aug. 29. The parish has a successful ongoing capital campaign. They purchased the St. Francis Thrift Shop and are planning a multipurpose building that will include a gymnasium.