The idea of a new parish in the Rochester Hills area started in 1988 when St. Andrew’s Church in Rochester reached 2,500 families. Regional Bishop Dale Melczek encouraged Fr. Eugene R. Strain, the pastor of St. Andrew’s, to look into the possibilities. Fr. Strain asked parishioner Ken Wigton to take him up in his single engine Mooney to reconnoiter. They found plenty of homes and home sites south of Avon and north of M59, roughly in the area between Livernois and Dequindre which constituted the southern boundary of St. Andrew’s. Fr. Strain invited Bishop Melczek to take the next flight with him.
Cardinal Edmund Szoka blessed the project by establishing the new parish of St. Mary of the Hills canonically. The Cardinal next listed the parish for priests to apply as founding pastor. Fr. Strain spent a long time discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit and considering his own capabilities and the risk involved: there was no guarantee anyone would leave St. Andrew’s because it was a great parish with everything built and practically no debt. On the other hand, the new parish would have nothing by way of buildings or money. Fr. Strain said “I thank God that I applied and that the assignment board and the Cardinal gave me the job which allowed me to experience the truth of Socrates’ definition of happiness: stretching one’s abilities for a good cause. Therefore, after 19 years of teaching seminarians as a member of the Society of St. Sulpice and after 18 years as a pastor, I had the rare honor and challenge of starting a new parish. Thank God for vocation!”
A word about this site: about twenty years earlier the Archdiocese bought ten acres at the northwest corner of Hamlin and John R. In its wisdom the diocese makes purchases in potential growth areas so that when a parish is eventually proposed, it has land that was relatively inexpensive; such was St. Mary’s case. The site at the time of purchase was buildable by prevailing State law. However, the new wetland’s laws made it unbuildable. This was learned, after careful study and testing, at Christmas time 1989; hence, the Lord’s first Christmas gift to St. Mary’s was adversity.
St. Mary’s started looking for a new site within the Parish boundaries. There weren’t many because a church in this area must now be built on a main thoroughfare. The search committee settled on John R. Nursery which became the new site for the parish. There were advantages: no toxic waste and a lot of trees, many of which were moved and later incorporated into the landscape design; and proximity to plenty of parishioners. On the matter of land, Fr. Strain was visited by a gentleman who owned ten acres east and contiguous to the site. He knew that the Archdiocese owned two small parcels of land on Livernois that were not needed for any new parish. He wanted a swap. His land was excellent: meadowland and woods to the north…and not wetlands. After some study the Cardinal approved the transaction and St. Mary of the Hills became the proud owner of a total of twenty prime acres. The original ten acres cost $50,000 an acre and the second parcel cost $17,000 an acre, making the average price per acre for land for the parish pretty good. Thank God for beautiful land!
There were so many events and plans that ran into each other in those early days and, in fact, still do, which makes life at St. Mary of the Hills so interesting. There were, at first, two pressing, needs: staff who would get the parish off to a good start and temporary facilities. Fr. Strain chose Judy Kozlowski to be office manager and general traffic director. Her experiences as second secretary at St. Andrew’s plus her efficiency and graciousness made her a good choice. It so happened that St. Andrew’s parishioner, Jan Hall, an experienced Director of Religious Ed was also looking for new opportunities. After interviews and observations of her teaching, she was chosen to begin a program. St. Mary’s was offered the opportunity to keep using St. Andrew’s total program of religious education, but declined so that it could establish its own identity. Forty parishioners responded to Jan’s call for volunteer teachers who would open their homes to eight children to study and discuss faith and a sure way of teaching a God-filled, happy life.
The third and final search was for a part-time musician(s) to lead St. Mary’s in praise of God at the Eucharistic Liturgy and to start a choir. Fr. Strain hired a couple to do this who soon changed their mind. This experience of adversity shows that slammed doors offer new opportunities and open new doors. Such was Tim Smith who was ready to come into parish work. By the first Mass St. Mary’s had a choir in place and a congregation ready to sing led by a well educated, talented keyboard player and composer. Thanks be to God for dedicated staff!
The Rochester school administration was helpful in renting to St. Mary’s Reuther Middle School cafeteria for the three weekend Masses. One day when Fr. Strain was trying to figure out where parishioners could meet for Mass on weekdays and evening meetings, he was called to Christian Memorial Cemetery for a committal service. In the middle of the prayer it struck him that the chapel where he was standing could be the place. He called his friend Bernard LePage, the owner, and arranged for lunch. Mr. LePage was generous in opening up the chapel any time it was needed (as long as it did not interfere with funerals). A search committee found office space at 703 Barclay Circle.
The last thing to be done before the first Masses was getting a name for the parish. Since the original site was total forest, Fr. Strain proposed to Cardinal Szoka St. Mary of the Woods. Since there was already a parish so named in the southern part of the diocese, he then suggested the present name because of Rochester Hills—Approved. Our First Mass Finally the big day, Sunday, July 9, 1989, arrived for the first Masses. Joe Petruzello was kind in giving St. Mary’s the use of his catering establishment. Now that there are 1500 families registered, it is easy to say this embryo lives, but there was no guarantee until 8:50 that day when people came streaming in for the 9:00 Mass. That day two hundred families registered. The Lord determined that St. Mary’s was to live (some parishes have not) and thrive. A very happy day for parishioners who accepted the risk, burden and fun of a new parish. Thank God for hospitality.
Our Church Family
As the summer of 1989 passed into fall, the Administration commission correctly assumed that the parish would reach 500 families by the end of the year. Therefore the parish would be in a good position to start a financial drive for a building. It hired McCarthy & Associates to help; this proved to be a good choice. Fr. Strain never forgot the meeting at Reuther school in November when he asked for volunteers to go door to door for pledges. The cafeteria was packed with 200 volunteers. He knew and often said that this would be a great parish sometime in the future when it had buildings, but it was already a great parish now because of the people who, after all, are the church.
First Anniversary Mass
Almost 500 families pledged $1,000,000.
This allowed the parish to ask permission from Cardinal Szoka to hire Jack Brown as architect and to open a line of credit from diocesan funds. Groundbreaking took place on September 16, 1990. The first phase of construction was completed on November 23, 1991 with a dedication by then Archbishop Adam Maida in a beautiful liturgy. St. Mary’s had a home that was a joy thanks to Brown Associates, the building committee and the woodworkers who designed and built the chapel furniture.
When the pledges were paid off in three years, the parish decided to promote sacrificial giving (tithing) rather than begin another capital campaign. This has been a blessing for parishioners and the parish alike. To give a good example, the Stewardship Commission decided to increase tithing of the Sunday collection from 5% to 10%, where it is now. Fr. Strain was convinced that God gives spiritual and physical growth because of tithing, as the Bible promises. Presently St. Mary of the Hills gives to charities, missions, and works of Christian education approximately $100,000 annually.
Over the last twenty-five years St. Mary’s has expanded services and programs. Religious Formation has added adult activities in addition to the (RCIA) Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults; Youth Ministry includes both a junior and senior high program, St. Mary’s also has a Stephen Ministry Group (peer help for hurting people), a volunteer coordinator, and a preschool for three and four-year-old children. The staff has increased to fourteen full-time and twenty-four part-time employees.
An exciting and innovative Religious Formation program was embarked upon in 2005. G.I.F.T. (Growing in Faith Together): a monthly faith development program which includes everyone regardless of age. It begins with a meal, breakout sessions (age appropriate), teaching, sharing, discussion, and activities, then a return to the original setting to end with a closing activity that focuses on the topic. G.I.F.T. has replaced our after school program for children. This new format was endorsed and implemented in over 60 dioceses and 1000 parishes nationwide when St. Mary’s began it in 2005. Currently, 700 families are involved.
Christian Service has expanded to include many Ministries. The ministry with the largest participation is S.O.S. (South Oakland Shelter). For the past 10 years approximately 30 homeless are provided food, shelter, entertainment, and rides for one week a year.
Hundreds of parishioners have sacrificed their time and talent for the parish in various capacities during the years. God knows who they are and they know what they have done for St. Mary’s. Mary Bomarito and Bill and Catherine Sabanos stand out among those who were especially helpful in bringing the parish to life from its beginning.
St. Mary’s delights in the fact that it provides for the poor and for ministries of the Archdiocese. In past years it has met and surpassed its quotas for the annual Catholic Services Appeal and for the Archdiocesan Endowment Fund called Stewards for Tomorrow.
The quick growth of the parish is due to the generosity of many individuals among them being the late Miss F. Evelyn Cunningham, who left the parish 30% of her estate valued at over $1,000,000. This was very good of her considering she was not a member. Memorial plaques honoring her and her parents as well as other generous donors can be found in the chapel.
Church Construction – Second Phase
The Three Arches are in honor of the Trinity.
They also signify the victory of a Christian by following the laws of justice, service and charity as taught by Jesus.
Dedication of the Church
The new church building was dedicated by Cardinal Adam Maida on December 21, 1996, eight to ten years earlier than expected. An emphasis on tithing provided the needed funds to repay all loans for the building of a noble and inspiring church. Thanks to a dedicated building committee (Dave Reece, Judy Rhoads, John Hesch, John Hundiak, George Burkett, Carol Pociask, Jerry Hamling, and Kenneth Heck), a great architect (Jack Brown and Associates), an efficient construction company (Rewold & Company), and talented woodworkers (Clifford Durand, James Soisson, Timothy Lechtenberg, Gregory Okoniewski and Gary Rhoads), the church was completed on time and within budget.
“Not to us but to your name give glory.”
Te Deum laudamus.