St. Mary Church celebration marks a century plus of Catholic presence in Graham
GRAHAM — “Oh more, more than I ever hoped for,” Jim Burkett answered when asked what his parish, St. Mary Church in Graham, has meant to him.
Fellow parishioner Sandra Peavy, a church member for 60 years, agreed.
“It’s been so exciting to watch how the parish has changed and grown,” Peavy said. “We were a little white frame building when I first married. The priest came from Breckenridge every other Sunday and we went to Breckenridge on the other Sundays.
“We’ve had priests come from all over the world here, which has added to the diversity of the parish, which is so exciting,” she added.
Graham native Coral Juarez spoke of St. Mary’s impact on her life.
“It’s a big part of who I am,” Juarez said. “A big part of what I believe, and participation in the parish helps draw me closer to God and to be able to thank Him for everything He’s done for me and my family.”
Juarez and others gathered for a Sept. 24 Mass celebrating St. Mary’s 100th anniversary concelebrated by Bishop Michael Olson and St. Mary Pastor Father Eugene Nyong.
Juarez, a member of the parish choir, sang the Psalm during the Mass. In a post-Mass celebration in the parish hall, she, her mother, and sister led children through “Jesus Loves Me” and “Yo Tengo un Amigo que me Ama.”
“I’m grateful to God that He gave me the voice I have,” Juarez said. “Every time I sing, I ask God to help me be His voice through my voice and to help me hear His words through the words I’m singing.”
The Mass also marked the 25th anniversary of Fr. Nyong’s ordination as a priest. Fr. Nyong also pastors St. Theresa Church in Olney.
Young County’s Catholic roots stretch back to the 1850s when Father Michael Sheehan, a chaplain at Fort Belknap, celebrated Masses throughout the area, followed by missionary priests after Fr. Sheehan was assigned elsewhere.
Subsequently, Joseph Novakowski, a coal miner from nearby Newcastle, constructed an altar out of wooden crates and salt boxes and adorned it with a picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa, according to Diocese of Fort Worth and Young County Historical Commission records.
Missionary priests used the altar for Mass in Novakowski’s home.
“We are celebrating even though COVID delayed us a year,” Bishop Olson said. “Your parish is so strong and has a rich legacy of good, of helping each other as brothers and sisters in the Lord and patiently sharing the Gospel with others.”
Bishop Olson and others said St. Mary’s Parish dates to 1921.
“Early in 1921, a group met in the home of C.A. Graves on Plum Street and a priest from Fort Worth celebrated the first Mass in Graham,” according to Young County Historical Commission records.
The church’s first building, a wooden structure with a bell tower, was built in 1922. Then Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth Bishop Thomas K. Gorman dedicated the present church building in 1965. The church served as a mission church for years with priests coming from Breckenridge to celebrate Mass.
St. Mary became a parish in 1969, the same year the Diocese of Fort Worth was established. The parish includes about 550 members.
True to Peavy’s sentiments of diversity, St. Mary’s parishioners and 19 priests “represent the historical immigration to our area over these last 100 years,” according to the diocesan account of the church’s anniversary.
“Likewise, we remember our 100 years,” Bishop Olson said. “All the marriages celebrated here. All the Baptisms that have been administered here. Even the funerals.”
After the Mass, Bishop Olson touched upon St. Mary’s big picture role.
“Locally, today was a wonderful celebration of a centennial that’s just the start of the spread of the Gospel here in Young County and beyond,” Bishop Olson said. “More broadly, everything that takes place in a local parish is connected to the Church of the Diocese and the Universal Church. Especially, particularly, how St. Mary in Graham collaborates and cooperates with St. Theresa Parish in Olney in sharing a priest and helping each other with works of charity and education in the faith.”
Expounding on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, Bishop Olson spoke during his homily of the duty all Catholics have to serve others.
“Our destiny, our eternal life in heaven, is conditioned by our willingness to be inconvenienced for the sake of other people,” Bishop Olson said. “The parable reminds us that, while we are in this world, we have to listen to the Lord, who speaks from sacred Scriptures, and live according to His will and not our own.”
The parable’s point being that distraction by and focus on material gain can cause one to lose sight of the far more important callings of family, community, and Christian charity and generosity, leaving us self-centered and insensitive to the needs of others, Bishop Olson said.
Fr. Nyong, who has served as St. Mary’s priest since 2016, spoke of the parish family.
“People in this parish are really active and really helping out,” Fr. Nyong said. “That takes a lot of stress off my shoulders when you have people willing to help out.”
The parish provides a friendship meal every month, offering food to all in the community, among other outreach measures, Fr. Nyong said.
Burkett cited the Knights of Columbus’ annual professional rodeo now in its 24th year and the annual sausage fest.
“All the money we make we dole back into Young County,” Burkett said.
Dave and Joan Deis joined the parish about a year ago after moving from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“Very welcoming,” Joan said of St. Mary. “It’s nice to be part of a parish that’s so involved in the community. We see people from church as we go about town. In Albuquerque that didn’t happen so much.”