The vision began more than 30 years ago: Build a Catholic Church in Mathews County. Thirty-five people shared the Reverend Jack Dougher’s dream and attended Mass December 13, 1980, at Salem Methodist Church in Diggs.
Three women of the parish then formed a weekly prayer group, and as their faith grew so did the number of worshipers who were interested in forming a Catholic community in Mathews County. Bishop Walter F. Sullivan recognized their faith and sanctioned the Mathews Catholic Mission. More than 100 people attended that historic first Eucharistic celebration July 2, 1983, which was held at the old Kingston Parish Hall. The weekly Saturday Vigil Masses drew a large attendance, but a lack of air conditioning and the oppressive heat meant moving the celebrations outside.
Bishop Sullivan visited the community September 3. A covered dish dinner, followed by the celebration of Holy Mass on the lawn, afforded the bishop an opportunity to see the community in action. The mosquitoes that night were especially bothersome and prompted the bishop to comment on the great need for a permanent building site. Bishop Sullivan dedicated the old sanctuary January 24, 1988.
Seventeen years later, the Church of Francis de Sales is home to more than 150 families. Through the years it has witnessed happy times and sad times and it’s had its share of controversial times, but the parishioners have been steadfast in their resolve to build their faith as they build their church.
“There are many pillars of faith at Francis de Sales,” says Father John Boddie. “Many of them have now gone home to God marked with the sign of faith. From Nuncia Diggs to Joseph Romano, Nita Johnson, Margaret Mary Furey and Tom Charles to Dorothy Imbert, Caroline Dougherty, Geoff Rogers and Ron Salmon, these and so many more have built our church. Parishioners have built their faith and our church through their ministry to the sick and the homebound and by our caring for each other, the poor and the financially marginalized.”
Every Sunday parishioners bring before the altar food for the poor of the local rural community; once a month the parish hosts the Peninsula Food Bank’s food distribution, and the young people feed the poor at local soup kitchens and learn the true meaning of being blessed.
“Probably our most attractive feature, a characteristic that builds both faith and community, is our hospitality,” Boddie says. “This is a parish that likes to eat. We host many special meals, including our Sweetheart Breakfast, the Chili Supper and our annual summer picnic, and toward the end of Mass on most Sundays we invite our first-time visitors to introduce themselves.”
The Hospitality Committee encourages visitors and parishioners to linger after Mass and enjoy baked goods, cold drinks and hot coffee. “People often tell me that our church is truly a place of welcome and hospitality,” Boddie says. “Many new parishioners have said that our genuine display of welcome and hospitality has been the chief reason they joined our church!” The new worship space and the new classroom wing are manifestations of the parish’s hospitality.
“The new space includes a Blessed Sacrament chapel that underscores the centrality of the Eucharist to our faith and a classroom wing that demonstrates that passing on the essence of our religious tradition to our children is a high priority for this parish,” Boddie says.
He cautions that the dedication of the new worship space does not signify the end of the building process. “Its only the beginning. The church of tomorrow is being built with the faith of our young people. May they build a church of justice, tolerance and peace!”
The Early History
Establishing a Catholic Community in rural Mathews County, Virginia, was always a cherished dream of both the long-time Catholic residents and the newly arrived “come heres” who lived in this small community on the Chesapeake Bay. The first hint that their dream might come true happened Saturday, Dec. 13, 1980, when at 7:30 p.m. the Reverend Jack Dougher celebrated mass at Salem Methodist Church at Diggs.
Father Jack, an Oblate of Francis de Sales, had been assigned by Bishop Walter Sullivan as an associate pastor at St. Therese Catholic Church in Gloucester. He had the added challenge of missionary outreach to Catholics in Middlesex and Mathews counties. When he celebrated that first Catholic Eucharist in Mathews County, 35 people attended. The social hour that followed gave people an opportunity to meet one another. And the seeds for a future Mathews parish were sown.
Saturday evening Masses on Jan. 12, Feb. 14 and March 14, 1981 became the impetus for a mission parish in Mathews. Due, however, to the oncoming Lenten schedule and difficulties in securing a suitable worship space, the monthly Masses subsided. However, Father Jack kept canvassing and encouraging Catholics in Mathews County while at the same time doing the same for the Catholics in Middlesex County. Much of his traveling on the back county roads was done on his moped.
In late 1981, Father Jack suggested that a weekly prayer group of Mathews Catholics might lead the way to forming a parish. On Dec. 16, 1981, three women of the parish, Josephine Bowman, Mary Plummer and Dorothy Rogers met at the Bowman residence to meditate, dialogue and pray for guidance. These prayer meetings continued on a weekly basis for 18 months. In 1982, Frank Orpin and Thomas Mangrum became members of the group. On May 23, 1982, after obtaining a list of Catholics in Mathews County from St. Therese Church, the prayer group sponsored a potluck, backyard picnic at the Bowman residence. Fifty-five enthusiastic people attended and shared their views about the feasibility of having a monthly mass in Mathews.
Contacts were made with various congregations. The Vestry of Kingston Episcopal Parish graciously offered the use of its old Parish Hall on the third Saturday of each month. The first Mass was celebrated on Saturday evening, Sept. 18, 1982, at 7:15, a day when the temperature was in the mid 90s. Much to the surprise of Father Joe Schaffer, then pastor of St. Therese, 95 adults and 12 children attended, resulting in Masses being celebrated alternately by him and his assistant, Father Jack Dougher.
These monthly masses continued. By early 1983, there was growing support to have the community recognized as a Mission of St. Therese similar to the one already established in Middlesex County. At a meeting in the Kingston Parish Hall on Feb. 20, 1983, more than two-thirds of those attending indicated a willingness to start a parish in Mathews County. Geoffrey Rogers agreed to act as spokesperson for the group. On March 9, 1983, a group from Mathews ? Geoff and Dorothy Rogers, Jo Bowman, Nicholas and Dolores Borello, Mary Plummer, Frank and Jane Monaghan, Susan Sorey, Mary Lee Tinsley, Vernon and Florence Armistead and Ruth Down ? attended the St. Therese Council meeting and petitioned the Council to have the Mathews Catholic Community recognized as a Mission.
The council agreed and gave permission for the Mathews group to seek the approval of Bishop Sullivan in Richmond. Bishop Sullivan delegated Father William Pitt, diocesan chancellor, to celebrate Mass and hold a “town meeting” in Mathews at the Piankatank Ruritan Club April 25, 1983. Despite a few voices of opposition, there was enough support and spirit to convince Bishop Sullivan that the Mathews group was indeed a genuine faith community and should be established as a mission. In June 1983, he appointed Father Dougher as co-pastor of both the Mathews and Middlesex communities.
The first Mass of the Mathews Catholic Mission was celebrated on Saturday, July 2, 1983, at 7:15 p.m. at the old Kingston Parish Hall; 103 people attended. Large attendance at the future weekly Saturday evening masses was gratifying but it soon became necessary to move the celebration to the outside due to the oppressive heat and a lack of air conditioning. A crew of loyal parishioners always was on hand to move the chairs and altar table to the lawn and back again.
On Saturday, Sept. 3, 1983, the Mathews Catholic Mission was honored by the visit of Bishop Sullivan. A covered dish dinner in the Kingston Parish Hall followed by the celebration of Holy Mass on the lawn afforded the Bishop an opportunity to see the community in action. He also commented on the great need for a permanent building site. The mosquitoes on the lawn that night were bothersome, to say the least. His generous contribution to the Mission the following week enabled the purchase of missals.
As the Mission worked to get started, Father Jack moved from St. Therese Rectory in Gloucester to a small cottage in Deltaville. On Sunday through Wednesday, he lived in Deltaville and from Thursday to Saturday nigh he hauled and set up a pop-up trailer in Mathews parishioners’ backyards. From there he continued to travel the county seeking new parishioners, visiting the sick and homebound and taking care of parish business.
In early September 1983, representatives of Kingston Parish approached Father Dougher and Geoff Rogers with the proposition that the Mission use its long-closed Trinity Church at Foster, rent free, for liturgical celebrations. The agreement was that utilities and upkeep were to be the Mission’s responsibility.
The first mass was celebrated there Saturday, Nov. 5 at 5 p.m. By the first Sunday of Advent 1983, many other activities had become a part of the parish life. A fund-raising booth had been staffed at Market Days in September. In October, the parish sponsored a Bloodmobile for the Red Cross. Other parish volunteers became involved with the home-delivered meals program in the county. The religious education program had started for the youth of the parish. Christmas 1983 was time of joy and thanksgiving for all members of the Mathews Catholic Mission.