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Huntingtown parish celebrates 25 years of reflecting Jesus the Divine Word

At the beginning of a Feb. 1 Mass celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jesus the Divine Word Parish in Huntingtown, Maryland, parishioners hold candles. The Calvert County parish was established in 1994. (CS photo/Bob Roller)

A large blue banner above the outside entranceway to Jesus the Divine Word Church in Huntingtown, Maryland, read, “25 Years of Proclaiming the Word.”

And on Feb. 1, parishioners arriving for a 25th anniversary Mass celebrated by Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory walked inside the church beneath a large, dramatic icon depicting Jesus the Divine Word, holding a book with words in Latin and Greek from the opening of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

A large icon above the interior doors to Jesus the Divine Word Church in Huntingtown, Maryland, depicts Jesus the Divine Word. (CS photo/Bob Roller)

Afterward, founding parishioner Patty O’Toole, noted how the parish’s name has been lived out there these past 25 years. “As we are given His Word at Mass, we are to bring His words to others, His words of mercy, love and forgiveness.”

That call to reflect Jesus’s love and mercy to others can be seen just outside Jesus the Divine Word Church in Soley Plaza, named for the parish’s founding pastor, Father Roger Soley, where a large sculpture by Father Harold Buckley – a New York priest who died in 2019 -- depicts the Forgiving Father embracing the Prodigal Son.

Father Soley, who served as pastor there from the parish’s establishment in 1994 until 2003, noted that the idea of the sculpture was for people, before they came to worship at the church “to know they were already loved. That’s the point, it’s the embrace of the Father’s forgiving love.”

In 1991, Father Soley was assigned by Cardinal James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington, to investigate the possibility of starting a new parish in Calvert County, which was then the fastest growing region of Maryland.

“We followed many, many people moving down to the county,” said Father Soley, who is now retired. “…We followed where the people were.”

That year and the next, the priest met with and celebrated 19 home Masses for Catholics in that area, and he celebrated the first community-wide Mass at Plum Point Elementary School on Pentecost Sunday in 1992. The next year, Jesus the Divine Word in Huntingtown was established as a mission, and in 1994, it became a parish, bounded on the east by the Chesapeake Bay and on the west by the Patuxent River.  Cardinal Hickey celebrated the new parish’s first Mass that Dec. 11 at the elementary school, where he installed Father Soley as the founding pastor. After the Mass, the founding parishioners posed for a group photo with their archbishop and new pastor. 

Another milestone for the parish came in 2002, when Jesus the Divine Word Church and its parish hall was dedicated, thanks to the support of parishioners and a generous donation from the Doran Family Foundation. Above the altar hangs another sculpture by Father Buckley – a crucifix crafted out of aluminum depicting Jesus leaning down from the cross, with his right arm outstretched toward the altar.

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, center, celebrates the 25th anniversary Mass for Jesus the Divine Word Parish in Huntingtown, Maryland, on Feb. 1. From left to right are Father Lawrence Swink, the pastor there from 2011-15 who is now pastor of Sacred Heart in La Plata; Father Roger Soley, the founding pastor at Jesus the Divine Word who led the parish from 1994 until 2003 and is now retired; Deacon Ron Burns; Archbishop Gregory; Father Conrad Murphy, the archbishop's priest secretary; Father John Dakes, the current pastor of Jesus the Divine Word who has served there since 2015; and Father Milton Jordan, the pastor there from 2003-05 who is now retired. Above the altar is a statue of the crucified Christ by the late Father Harold Buckley. (CS photo/Bob Roller)

Another founding parishioner, Ray O’Toole, who is a member of the Knights of Columbus and parish council there, said that crucifix is very meaningful to him, because it depicts Jesus “coming down off the cross, to reach out to me, and all I needed to do was reach out to Him.” 

As a married couple, Ray and Patty O’Toole had lived in different parts of the United States during his service in the Navy, and they eventually settled in Calvert County, where they were among the families joining the Huntingtown parish as it was being formed.

“We were excited to be part of a Catholic parish, starting at the beginning,” said Patty O’Toole, who helped found and serves as the director of the Good News Preschool at Jesus the Divine Word. “We’ve grown as a community, grown in friendship and grown in our faith.”

She noted that a special theme of the parish’s anniversary year has been “This is Home.”

“We wanted people to know this is our spiritual home,” she said.

Her husband, who gave a talk about the parish’s history at a dinner following the anniversary Mass, added, “This really is our home away from home. This is our opportunity to get to know Jesus our Lord in such a deeper way.”

In the mid-1990s, Sharon Broderick was in the first RCIA class at Jesus the Divine Word Parish, where she became a member of the Catholic Church. Over the years she has served as a lector and taught in the faith formation program there, and she now helps coordinate weddings at the parish. Her husband Daniel has served as an usher and groundskeeper there.

She said the parish community that has been part of her life these past 25 years is “loving and caring… It’s a family, God’s family.”

Before the 25th anniversary dinner that followed the Mass, Father John Dakes – who became the pastor at Jesus the Divine Word Parish five years ago – said, “What makes the parish special is the way people come together and serve one another and the larger community. They really pull together.”

The pastor noted how parishioners help one another when people experience deaths in their families, and in recent years they have also provided significant support to help build a Catholic school and homes for families in Haiti, and they also have a twinning relationship with St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, in a former coal mining region that has fallen on difficult economic times. Jesus the Divine Word parishioners have volunteered there and have held drives to collect school supplies and coats for people assisted by their sister parish.

Father Dakes said members of his parish also volunteer in the Raphael Ministry to visit and bring Communion to the homebound,  other parishioners volunteer at a local nursing home, and members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society host the homeless in the parish hall for a week during the winter.

Jesus the Divine Word also has a large youth ministry program and a monthly luncheon for seniors. The men’s group there meets on Saturday mornings for prayer, fellowship and Scripture study. The parish bulletin on the weekend of the anniversary Mass included a picture of the sculpture of the Forgiving Father, to promote an outreach aimed at welcoming home returning Catholics. And the bulletin also promoted a chili cook-off sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and a Valentine’s Day Bake Sale organized by the Our Lady of the Divine Word Sodality.

“Their faith is strong and their commitment to others is strong,” said Father Dakes. “As pastor, that makes me proud and inspires me.”

Archbishop Gregory offers thanks to Father John Dakes, the pastor of Jesus the Divine Word Parish in Huntingtown, at the Feb. 1 Mass marking the parish's 25th anniversary. (CS photo/Bob Roller)

The 25th anniversary year at Jesus the Divine Word included a parish pilgrimage in the summer of 2019 to Portugal, Spain and France, an outdoor Mass and parish picnic in the fall and a ministry appreciation Mass and reception in December. A parish feast day celebration is planned for March 25, with a family night scheduled in April.

Cecilia Cortes-Peck, the parish’s director of liturgy, said people there try to make Jesus the Divine Word part of their daily lives, following the example of Mary, “first to conceive the Divine Word in ourselves, (and) ponder it in our hearts, minds and souls what it means to help, affect and inspire our families, neighbors and all whom we encounter to do the same.”

At the anniversary Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory, the concelebrants included Father Dakes and Father Soley, along with Father Milton Jordan, the pastor there from 2003-2005 who is now retired, and Father Lawrence Swink, the pastor there from 2011-15 who is now pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in La Plata. Another former pastor, Father Daniel Leary, who led the parish from 2005-11, was unable to attend the anniversary Mass. He now serves as the pastor of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring.

Acknowledging the faith and dedication of pioneer and other parishioners along with the priests who have served at Jesus the Divine Word, Archbishop Gregory said, “Today clergy and laity have laid a strong foundation of faith in this community of Huntingtown. You should all rejoice in what God has accomplished in you.”

Archbishop Gregory greets altar servers as he arrives for the Feb. 1 Mass marking the 25th anniversary of Jesus the Divine Word Parish in Huntingtown. (CS photo/Bob Roller)