By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
The first celebration marking the 125th anniversary of Old St. Stephen R.C. Church took place Sunday as dozens of couples married there renewed their vows.
The church on Baseline Road, built in 1890, hosted a celebration of marriage service June 7. Approximately 100 people attended who were married at Old St. Stephen, one more than 70 years ago. The Rev. Paul Nogaro welcomed the more than 100 people back "to the place where that deed was done."
Nogaro noted the ceremony was the first to mark the 125th anniversary of the church. He thanked Eileen and Jeff Stone for organizing the ceremony, the first phase of the Old St. Stephen's anniversary celebration.
"Who knows how many hundred of couples have been married in the confines of this church," Nogaro said.
The ceremony Sunday also coincided with the weekend of the Feast of Corpus Christi, Nogaro noted, calling it a fortunate coincidence.
"We are reminded of how God has given us the great gift of the Eucharist," Nogaro said the feast day. "It is the Eucharist for Catholics that bind us together in the community, and what better thought could we have as we celebrate marriage, which binds a man and a woman in a loving and intimate relationship. Through the Eucharist, God links us to himself through his son, Jesus Christ. And through the Eucharist, we are linked to a larger family, the family of the church of all believers."
Jeff Stone said the genesis for the ceremony occurred in a meeting to plan the 125th anniversary of the building. "We just wanted to have some modest events to mark 125 years, and many of us had been married here, so the idea arose that we should have a special Mass for those married in the Old Church."
They sent out invitations and published notices in the church bulletin. One respondent who attended the service was Mary Dinsmore, 96, who married John Martin at Old St. Stephen in 1942. The oldest couple present Sunday was Elizabeth and Robert Goulding, married for 62 years, joined Oct. 4, 1952.
Nogaro said St. Stephen is the oldest faith community on the Island, and the Old Church is the oldest church building.
"And this building for 125 years has helped to shape the faith community here on Grand Island," Nogaro said.
He said St. Paul calls the church the bride of Christ, marriage imagery that helps Catholics understand God's permanence and unbreakable relationship with the faithful. He praised the couples whose married life began in the Old Church and who count on each other to be a strength and guide, saying the presence of Christ is in each spouse.
"Through your married life, which began here in this church with the public proclamation of your vows, you have walked the path of married life strengthening and sustaining one another," Nogaro told them.
The Old Church has an appeal to couples both aesthetically and spiritually, the Stones said.
"It has a small, very quaint feeling to it," Eileen Stone said. "If the wedding is of the size, it fits very nicely in there, and it has a very traditional look to it."
"Even though we have moved to a new and larger church ... this building holds a special place in the hearts of so many people and will continue to do so for years to come," Jeff Stone said. He added the church is still a place where members of the St. Stephen parish choose to hold weddings and funerals. Six of the couples who renewed their vows were married there after the new church opened.
"The fact that this building can still be maintained and, really, revered within the parish even though we have a huge new church, is nice," he said.
The parish paid to have the building refurbished and stabilized when it was "threatened for quite a while," Stone said. The building is by no means dormant. It hosts community activities such as Scout meetings and a Neighbors Foundation pantry.
"It still certainly needs work, but it's just a strong cadre of people who still want to be married here," Jeff Stone said. "As Father Paul said in the homily, it's really a living building, still. It's not just an old shell or a relic. A lot of things do still go on here."
The quasquicentennial will continue in the fall, when the bishop will arrive to rededicate the Old Church. A cookout will follow.