Costumed children participate in a choreographed Polish dance set to polka music and performed at the July 18 Polish heritage fest at St. Kunegunda of Poland Parish in Sugar Camp. The festival was one of multiple events celebrating the parish’s past, present building project and future with symbolic gestures – “standing on the shoulders of those who came before us” – signaling multiple generations of faith and the conscientious passing-on of commitment to worship. (Submitted photo)
Catholic Herald Staff
“Grant us wisdom, O God, to preserve this place and keep alive the legacy of St. Kunegunda Church: a home for our spiritual family, a haven for guests and seekers, a hope for a wounded world, a place to belong, whoever we are. Grant us the will to care for the gifts you have so freely bestowed.”
Those are the final words of the prayer composed for the Sugar Camp parish’s “Building on our Legacy” capital campaign. The campaign’s goal was $445,550, which was approximately half of the funding needed for the building of an enhanced worship space and gathering hall.
With the overall project priced at a little more than $900,000, the parish finance and parish councils committed $400,000 with an additional $58,000 pledged by the St. Kunegunda Women’s Council.
As with other parish projects around the diocese, the coronavirus pandemic delayed the groundbreaking from 2020 until April . The resilience in the face of these challenges was seen as a continuation of the campaign’s theme of building on legacy and “standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.”
The concept was, according to capital campaign chair Michele Cornelius, “an idea generated from a parish council member as a way to acknowledge, honor and appreciate those who came before us.
“We are thankful to our ancestors,” she added.
Cynthia (Thorn) Wallis is a lifelong Sugar Camp resident and St. Kunegunda parishioner who shared a personal testimony on why the building project mattered to her.
“It has been over 122 years since our very beginning where young women travelled by horse and buggy collecting donations for the building of a church in Sugar Camp,” Wallis wrote.
Wallis’ mother, Irene Thorn, had never belonged to any church other than the parish of St. Kunegunda’s. The daughter of Polish immigrants, “she represents so many who came before us and now we are building on their legacy as we move forward with our building project,” Wallis said.
She also shared how the family of another longtime parishioner had gifted the Blessed Mother statue that was placed in front of the original church.
“When I saw her again after so many years, tears welled up in my eyes,” Wallis noted. “For me there is a special connection … At the tender age of seven,
I was the one picked to crown her with a crown of flowers to honor her.”
Her testimony ends: “St. Kunegunda has been a part of so many lives and will continue to be. St. Kunegunda is my spiritual home.”
In an interview with the Catholic Herald, Cornelius spoke about the strong Polish heritage of the Sugar Camp community, with initial settlers arriving in the 1890s. During the parish’s centennial celebration in 1998, the logging and lumber business industry was highlighted. Recognizing the importance of the Catholic faith of their employees – and keen on keeping them and attracting new hires – the Brown Brothers Lumber Company sold a plot of land for $1 intended to be the site for a church.
Literally building on this strong sense of faith and identity, the committee came up with the idea of collecting and blessing “foundation medals.”
“People grabbed onto the multi-generational aspect,” Cornelius affirmed, noting that her grandmother’s rosaries were given by a great aunt.
Religious belongings of past parishioners and family members with ties to St. Kunegunda’s were gathered – rosaries, saint medals, etc. – and blessed by Fr. Ron Serrao. They were then let down into the ground before the concrete footings for the new construction were poured.
“We want to continue to honor them and stand on their shoulders as we now build for those who will follow in our footsteps,” Cornelius added.
Cynthia Wallis was present at that foundation pouring ceremony as well as another parishioner, Jackie Anderson, who also shared her memories in support of the project.
Anderson said how reading the project prayer deeply moved her, two phrases in particular.
“The first is ‘standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.’ As someone who has been a member of St. Kunegunda all my life, that phrase conjures up images of the many family and community members who came before me,” she write
She remembers attending Mass with her father, even as an adult. She recalled how he lived his faith by investing time, talent and treasure, “so not only they, but others who came after them, might have a place to gather, worship and celebrate community.
“St. Kunegunda is where I was baptized, received my first Communion and confirmation, was married and will someday be buried. ‘Church’ to me is not only coming to celebrate Eucharist, but coming together as a community,” she said.
The second phrase of the prayer Anderson commented on is, “122 years of faithful stewardship at St. Kunegunda, the priceless gift we have inherited through no doing of our own.”
Having been involved in the 1998 centennial celebration, Anderson noted how she has seen the parish’s needs change – especially its programs and number of parishioners, particularly children and teens. She recalled a letter written to the parish council in 1995 which outlined the growing pains and expansion needs of the church.
“That need continues to this day – over 26 years later,” Anderson exclaimed, adding, “I feel it is now and has been my responsibility to continue the strong foundation for future generations so they may stand on my shoulders.”
St. Kunegunda’s holds an annual polka Mass. For 2021, a Polish festival was added with the goal of “finding a way to further tell our story,” Cornelius said.
“Understanding who you are and what you stand for is an important element when asking for financial support … what you’re achieving and why.”
Held on Sunday, July 18 – close to the July 24 feast day of the parish patron, also known as St. Kinga – the day did allow the parish to raise additional funds, but it was mostly a storytelling opportunity.
After the polka Mass, a Polish meal was served, accompanied by traditional music and a dance presentation by a group of costumed children. Multiple booths had been set up with items ranging from the centennial history, video and photos to current construction plans and a table with Polish home items, wearables and homemade desserts.
One week before the summer festival, part-time parishioners – who wished to remain anonymous but also had multiple generations of connection with St. Kunegunda’s – made a sizeable donation to close the gap and meet the campaign’s financial goal.
The announcement was made prior to the festival, clarifying that additional donations would still be collected for unexpected costs and furnishing expenses.
Cornelius admitted it was “overwhelming to say out loud” that the goal had been met, and it added an additional element of celebration to the heritage festival.