June 26, 2024 // Bishop

St. Anthony de Padua in South Bend Marks 75th Anniversary

On a hot Saturday afternoon, June 15, some 400 parishioners packed the pews at St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church in South Bend to celebrate the parish’s 75th anniversary. Because the air conditioner had broken days earlier, being indoors offered the community no reprieve from the heat, but that didn’t quell the joy, which could be felt as they sang out the song, “Laudate, Laudate Dominum” in celebration of the parish’s diamond jubilee. This was a living witness of the ethos of the parish – a community proud of its history, committed to staying despite challenges, grateful, and excited for the future. 

There was indeed much to celebrate, including how the Lord had recently guided the parish through a trying time. 

All photos by Derby Photography
Father Arthur Joseph Ssembajja digs a hole for a time capsule at St. Anthony de Padua in South Bend on Saturday, June 15.

Father Arthur Joseph Ssembajja, who came to the parish in June of 2022, made use of the opportunity the Jubilee year held, creating three pillars to guide the parish toward the celebration: Reflect, Celebrate, and Renew. He shared the idea behind these pillars by first reflecting on where the parish was at the time of their inception, saying: “The parish was bouncing back from a period of instability. And there was a feeling of ‘is this even a community? Are we even together?’” 

In response, Father Ssembajja discerned that “what we need to do is to make sure that we look back and see the graces of the Lord, how the Lord’s work has been done, the hand of the Lord doing the work in the parish, and what the hand of the Lord is doing right now – and also what the Lord’s promises are for tomorrow. We know when He promises, He gives.”

Father Ssembajja continued: “What comes from reflection is a sense of gratitude, but also a sense of providence by the Lord: If it wasn’t for the Lord, we wouldn’t be here,” he shared. “Now, after being filled with that sense of gratitude, and that sense of providence from the Lord, then we’ll be moved to give thanks – laudate dominum –  to praise the Lord, to give thanks, to celebrate that. … And as we celebrate, then we just get into this spirit of renewal: renewed zeal, renewed passion, renewed commitment for the next 75 years.”

Honoring the parish’s history, Father Ssembajja, Deacon Mike Plenzler, and Bishop Rhoades were joined by three former priests of the parish during the jubilee Mass: Father Barry England (pastor from 1988 to 2000), Father Terry Fisher (2000-06), and Father John Solee (priest in residence from 2021-23). 

The weekend readings that happened to coincide with the Jubilee Mass were particularly fitting, including Psalm 92, with its themes of celebration, thanksgiving, and promise, and multiple allegories of trees that conveyed the importance of grace in order for God’s people, collectively and individually, to become the strong presence of his Kingdom, reaching out to draw others in. In his homily, Bishop Rhoades underscored this theme, saying: “God is the one who provides for the growth. We must trust in Him and the power of His grace.” 

Bishop Rhoades, center, poses with clergymen and altar servers following the 75th-anniversary Jubilee Mass at St. Anthony de Padua in South Bend on Saturday, June 15.

Through God’s grace, the parish has grown since its humble beginnings in 1949, when Father Jerome Bonk was commissioned by Archbishop John Francis Noll to found it in response to the city’s growing Catholic demographic. Ground was broken for the parish school with 285 families; now the parish is home to more than 500 families and 240 students.

The school and church have remained intricately tied, with Father Ssembajja calling the school “the most important and most central ministry of our parish.” The Jubilee celebration, therefore, included tours of the school building, which contains the space where the first Mass was held 75 years ago. The parish offices reside in the school building, and this setup allows for wonderful shared life.

“When I go in every single day, I run into kids. I go to their classes. I’m sitting in my office, and a random set of five kids come in, and they’re celebrating a birthday of one, and they bring cookies,” Father Ssembajja said. “We wanted everybody to kind of experience what we see and what we live through every single day; it’s beautiful.”

Parishioners Pam and Tom White helped put together a time capsule that was buried at the end of the evening and will be opened in 2049 for the parish’s 100th anniversary. The capsule included many items, including a list of the year’s first communicants, a staff Christmas photo card, and a yearbook. 

Most of the jubilee planning was done by volunteers. In response to Father Ssembajja’s invitation, 20 couples led efforts related to the three pillars. As part of the Reflect committee, Ann and Larry Greer spearheaded multiple projects, including a documentary that was viewed during the celebration and is currently on the parish website (stasb.org). The 30-minute production was created with the help of their daughter, Cassie, who works in the film industry, and provides a comprehensive recap of the parish’s history. In addition to interviews and photos, this recap included some impressive figures during its 75 years of ministry in the South Bend community: 6,200 baptisms, 4,800 first communicants, more than 500 people entered into the Church, more than 4,000 confirmandi, close to 1,500 marriages, and 3,000 graduates of the parish school. 

Those figures reflect an involved and committed community. When asked to describe the primary characteristics of parishioners, Father Ssembajja highlighted their pride in the parish history, their multi-generational makeup, and their warmth and welcome. The latter is showcased in multiple ways. As parishioners often gather in the narthex after Mass in order to connect, donut Sundays have recently increased in frequency to twice a month, and newcomers are always warmly received – including new babies. Father Ssembajja shared that parishioners are often eager to hear news of a new baptism and then reach out to the parents to offer encouragement. Parish families are also always gifted with small Panther gear at birth, so future Panthers can begin donning the school mascot as early as possible.

As the crowds gathered in the shade of a large tent in the school courtyard to enjoy dinner together after Mass, one could easily witness the unique beauty of the parish community. Ahead of celebrating his first Father’s Day, a married graduate held his potential future Panther while enjoying the celebration with his family, including his dad, who was a long-time parishioner before him. At the other end of the tent, a parishioner of 40 years tenderly waved down a former lector in order to greet her with a hug and reconnect. And, as an elderly couple left the tent and made their way to their car, Father John Solee scurried to catch up to them, arms wide open, making sure they didn’t leave without saying goodbye. 


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