Case study:

St. Mary Parish, Schwenksville

Special to The CS&T

SCHWENKSVILLE – The borough of Schwenksville is a tiny community nestled in the northwest section of Montgomery County. It is served by St. Mary Parish, under the direction Father Charles J. McElroy, its pastor since 1993.

At first look, St. Mary seems to be situated in a rural community. That is accurate, but the scope is much larger, the result of development that has propelled families to leave the city and nearby suburbs for former farming areas where cornfields have been supplanted by housing tracts.

“Ours is a lot like a suburban parish around a little town,” Father McElroy explained. “We are in eight separate townships. It is a huge territory. I call it semi-suburban. There are still farms around. It is about 50 square miles; half of it is undeveloped.”

There are 2,000 families in the parish, between 6,500 and 7,500 inspaniduals. “It’s always changing,” Father McElroy said. “People transfer in for the jobs. Maybe a family with two or three children arrives while a single person leaves. We also have a fair number of seniors moving in with new development and assisted-living facilities.”

The church itself is about one-quarter mile outside of the borough in Lower Frederick Township. About 10 percent of the borough’s just under 2,000 residents belong to the parish. The majority live in Lower and Upper Salford Townships, Perkiomen Township and Lower Frederick.

The present church was built in 1984, following a fire that destroyed the original structure built in 1926. A new parish school was built for the 2003-04 school year. There are 330 students in kindergarten through eight.

Father McElroy came to Schwenksville following a 28-year teaching career at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield.

“Many of the small communities were Mennonite,” remembered Father McElroy, 70. “There was a nice atmosphere among the general population. They are very moral people, with a good business sense and friendly.”

Recreation is one of the draws for families moving to the area.

“We’re the only parish with a ski slope (Spring Mountain Ski Area),” Father McElroy said. “It is part of the mystique of the area. It’s a rural atmosphere with hills and woods and houses with two- or three-acre plots.” There is also the yearly Philadelphia Folk Festival every August in Schwenksville.

The St. Mary community is an active one. Father McElroy, like many pastors throughout the Archdiocese, is trying to increase the numbers. Mass attendance is about 1,500 on Sunday.

“Our biggest need,” he said, “is, in a few words, reclaiming people, bringing them (to the Church).”

Land recently purchased from a parishioner has expanded the parish’s property to 23 acres. There is also the new school building, so good things are happening.

“We have a committee for evangelization that’s been working for two years,” Father McElroy said. “We do mailings, talks and follow-ups. We encourage people to become more active and bring others with them.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.