Children from St. Francis International School in Silver Spring sing to open the Oct. 1 dedication ceremony for their new elderly neighbors at Victory Oaks at St. Camillus
Children from St. Francis International School in Silver Spring sing to open the Oct. 1 dedication ceremony for their new elderly neighbors at Victory Oaks at St. Camillus
The new senior residents of Victory Oaks at St. Camillus in Silver Spring got a special welcome at their new home's Oct. 1 dedication, not only from community and church leaders, but from the choir from their neighboring St. Francis International School, who serenaded them with "God Bless America" and "All Are Welcome."

Then the students brought forward a stack of cards and letters for their new elderly neighbors, which they presented to Jim Brown, the president of Victory Housing, the Archdiocese of Washington's housing corporation which developed the new 48-unit apartment building for low-income seniors located beside St. Camillus Church and St. Francis International School.

"This is the kind of thing that will make this house a home," said Brown, noting that 38 seniors had already moved into their new home there.

Before the ceremony, Franciscan Father Mike Johnson, the pastor of St. Camillus, said, "We run the spectrum on this campus," noting that the school's early education program begins at age 2, and now Victory Oaks will serve senior citizens.

As he gave his opening prayer at the ceremony, Father Johnson noted that the new home was built on land where the parish's annual Way of the Cross procession ended each year. The formerly wooded area where the home now stands (and that inspired the name "Victory Oaks") also served over the years as the backdrop for parish festivals at St. Camillus.

The priest earlier said the nearly two-acre plot of land amounted to about 10 percent of the parish's property. "It's our tithe," he said. "This is us giving 10 percent to take care of our mothers and fathers, some who have been members of our community for years, and some who we're looking forward to getting to know."

Toby Harkleroad, the principal of St. Francis International School, said they were looking forward to developing cooperative programs with Victory Oaks, perhaps with the seniors reading to the students and sharing their wisdom with them, and students visiting and making friends with their new neighbors and celebrating holidays with them.

At the ceremony, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a congressman from Maryland's 8th District, said, "Seeing students next door to the residents of Victory Oaks is a great symbol of how we need to come together as a community to support one another."

He praised the cooperative effort that made the new residence possible, including a $6.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and $1 million in funding from Montgomery County.

"It takes a village to raise our children, and it takes a village to care for our seniors," said Roger Berliner, the president of the Montgomery County Council, who noted that one-quarter of the county's households are now headed by people 62 or older.

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Martin Holley emphasized that the effort was a work of faith. "As a church, we have built not just a physical building, but a community of people," he said. "We show our community that we love them, and God loves them."

Victory Oaks' new large multipurpose room was named for Ron Dickenson, a St. Camillus parishioner who played a key role in promoting the project, and for his late wife Grace, who died earlier this year. Dickenson, who 82 and is a retired IBM engineer, said in an interview that he was inspired by a former parishioner who had raised her family and received the sacraments at the parish, but who was disappointed that in her elderly years, she had to move from the area to find a new home. "I've been wanting to do something for seniors here for a long time," said Dickenson, who visited the site each day of its construction as a parish liaison for the project, and who made recommendations, such as having an entrance from Victory Oaks right across from the church, so residents could attend Mass more easily.

After the ribbon was cut for Victory Oaks, Dickenson said the greatest blessing was "the people (now living here). They add so much richness to the parish."

Victory Oaks resident Luz Cabrera, who had moved in days earlier, is a longtime St. Camillus parishioner who wanted to stay close to her church. "It's like paradise (to me)," said Cabrera, an immigrant from Peru and a retired school teacher. "This is really a blessing... All the time I looked for a place and prayed for a place close to where I live."

She added, "St. Camillus for me has always been my home since I arrived in this country."

Another Victory Oaks resident - Bill Carter, a retired textiles worker from New Jersey who has children and grandchildren living in this area -smiled and said, "I love the idea I can fall out of bed and go to church!"

And Carter, who will turn 80 in February, said it was great to have a Catholic school as his neighbor. "It takes me back to my kids in parochial school, and helping with bingo at night and at school picnics" over the years, he said.

Carter, who helped set up chairs for the dedication ceremony, added, " I keep after them, (saying), if they need help, give me a call. After all, this is my home now."