Parishioners of St. Andrew Church gathered Dec. 2 for a slightly belated observance of the parish patron saint's Nov. 30 feast day and in so doing preserved a unique tradition in the east Arkansas community of Marianna.
For the past 36 years, congregants of St. Andrew Catholic Church and St. Andrew Episcopal Church, which face each other on opposing corners of the same intersection, have held joint services in honor of their shared patron, which includes Catholic Mass (the Episcopalians equivalent being called Holy Eucharist) and a potluck dinner.
Margie Sallis, parish council president for St. Andrew Catholic Church, was on hand for the very first celebration on Nov. 30, 1976. She said in the nearly four decades since then, the event has come to represent an important chapter in the history of the town and its houses of worship.
"Here we have different churches of the same name which sit on opposite corners of the same street," Sallis said "The motivation for the first one was to come to together as a community."
Following a tradition of alternating venues yearly, the dual religious service was held at St. Andrew Episcopal this year while the companion potluck dinner was held at the Catholic parish hall. While the population of both churches has grayed and thinned significantly over the years, an estimated 55 combined congregants enjoyed the fellowship and unique atmosphere that has become part of both parishes' heritage.
Father Richard Strack and Rev. LaBaron Taylor, now both retired, celebrated the first service, but the Rev. Taylor, who now lives in Louisiana, was on hand for the 2012 event.
Through the years a number of priests have celebrated Mass for the attending Catholic congregation, including one memorable year that featured Bishop Andrew J. McDonald and his Episcopalian counterpart, Bishop Christoph Keeler.
The only year the celebration wasn't held was 2010 when both churches didn't have permanent pastors. They almost missed 2009 for the same reason, but Father Edwin Graves, then living in Wynne, was recruited for the Catholic side and turned out to be the lone celebrant for both congregations. Sallis said Father Graves was also popular musical entertainment at the potluck dinner on several occasions.
The collective ecumenical goodwill the event has engendered has deepened over the years. Both congregations take the opportunity invite the other to various parish events throughout the year. A large painting hangs in the Episcopalian church that shows both St. Andrew buildings. It was only a matter of time before other denominations looked to get in on the act. The community's Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist congregants have found their way into the St. Andrew collective festivities.
While each congregation takes its doctrine seriously - Communion is distributed separately by celebrants to their respective flocks - in a community of 4,000, it's not hard to find something to hold in common.
Perhaps nowhere is this better personified than by local organist Charlotte Waldrip. A former St. Andrew Episcopalian, she converted to Catholicism 15 years ago. Every weekend, Waldrip provides musical accompaniment for Mass on Saturday evening, then for Episcopal services on Sunday at 9 a.m. and plays the 11 a.m. service at Marianna's First Presbyterian Church.
To a parish leader like Sallis, who lives and works on the same farm outside Marianna where she grew up, such is life in a small town where it's important to focus less on what separates people and more on what they have in common.
"(This event has) brought about greater understanding between the two churches and it's continued to spawn relationships between the two churches," Sallis said. "This is our community. We're more similar than different."
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