"How are you?" "Warm!" Cohoes Catholics called to one another before an unusual event last weekend: an outdoor Mass at the Cohoes Falls, part of a weekend of "Heritage Days" events for the city's 143rd anniversary.
About 200 Mass-goers packed the tiers of Falls View Park on the hot afternoon for the liturgy, concelebrated by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard and Revs. James Ebert of Holy Trinity parish, Lawrence McTavey (retired from now-closed St. Bernard's) and John Facci, SAC (retired from now-closed St. Rita/Sacred Heart), assisted by Deacons Gerald Matthews of Holy Trinity and Charles Valenti of St. Michael's.
A display recalled those and other former parishes: St. Joseph's, St. Agnes and St. Patrick's. In a homily on the city's particularly Catholic history, Father McTavey recited the names of orders of women religious and individual priests who served in Cohoes.
"I can think of no more splendid setting for this Mass than overlooking the world-famous Cohoes Falls," noted the Bishop, eliciting chuckles and then applause as he recalled childhood visits to Cohoes sites like Carlson's Pool.
Over the roar of the waterfall, Father Ebert remarked on "what it must have been like for the early missionaries who came here to say Mass right out in the open. We are standing on their holy ground. God is everywhere; in this nature, God is with us."
(The following is a paraphrasing of Rev. Lawrence McTavey's homily)
We join this afternoon with the citizens of the community of Cohoes in the celebration of our heritage. As an integral part of our city, we, the Catholic community of Cohoes, gather to celebrate Mass here at the Cohoes Falls.
Our Catholic heritage here in Cohoes is a long and proud one, beginning 165 years ago in the year 1847 when a Belgian missionary, Rev. Bernard Van Reith, came here to serve approximately 300 Catholic families. He sought permission from Bishop [later Cardinal] John McCloskey to establish a parish for these people. He opened the parish in a storefront on Remsen Street, naming it St. Bernard's.
As the years passed, Cohoes - largely because of employment opportunities in the mills - dramatically increased in population. At one point, there was a recorded population of approximately 40,000 people.
In the age of immigration experienced throughout our country, there was a continuous mingling of many nationalities. These people brought their faith with them and they built parish churches to serve their spiritual needs.
In Cohoes, we witnessed an influx of French Canadians who were responsible for the forming of the parishes of St. Joseph, Sacred Heart and St. Marie's. Polish immigrants gave us St. Michael's. St. Rita's served an Italian population, while the so-called Irish parishes of St. Agnes, St. Patrick and St. Bernard served English-speaking people.
A jewel of the churches of Cohoes was our Catholic school system. The religious women of communities such as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the Sisters of Mercy, the Presentation Sisters, the Sisters of St. Ann and the Resurrection Sisters were truly spiritual heroes whose efforts gave us a remarkable system of education. Their sacrifices and those of the Catholic people of the parishes are a beautiful tribute to the faith of our community.
As we gather in the present, we must look to our Church of today and reflect upon what the future holds for our Catholic community of Cohoes. The society in which we live is not particularly accepting of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That Gospel message which speaks of love of God and neighbor is, in many ways, the antithesis of the gospel of the world. That gospel emphasizes secularism, materialism and consumerism.
If we are to preserve our heritage of faith, we must be strong, willing to sacrifice and ready to show the courage our ancestors maintained as they met the problems and the opposition of their day. We must embellish that strong faith and heritage for our children and their children.
As we take pride in the efforts of our ancestors, so may future generations look at the Church of Cohoes in the year 2012 and be filled with gratitude for the heritage we have given them.
So, let us offer this Mass in thanksgiving for our past and, in a spirit of Christian hope, pray for the future of the community of Cohoes, which we know and love.