By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

NEW HOPE – Cardinal Justin Rigali celebrated a 125th anniversary Mass at St. Martin of Tours Parish in New Hope Sept. 18, but Catholic roots in the quaint Bucks County Delaware River town go back to the 1740s, although not numerous enough to warrant church or chapel.

In 1837 a mission, St. John the Evangelist, was established just across the Delaware in Lambertville, N.J. It served fine, even though after the Diocese of Newark was established in 1853 technically it wasn’t their parish. In 1880 they petitioned for a church of their own and were initially turned down.

Fortunately, at the time Father Henry Stommel, who was something of a Junipero Serra for Bucks County, was pastor of St. Mary’s (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) in Doylestown. He’d already built four churches in the general area and St. Martin of Tours, his fifth, was dedicated by Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan on Sept. 17, 1885.

The site on which Father Stommel built the original church was at the top of a steep elevation. “My grandfather, Michael Tiernan, was one of the men who carried the stone up the hill,” said Mary Ellen Dubois, a lifelong New Hope resident. “We walked up that hill every Sunday and holy day,” she said.

She recalls the New Hope of her childhood as a pretty little town, “perfect the way it was.” {{more}}

For generations the town has been something of an art colony, and although long-term residents like her might wish for fewer tourists and the traffic and shops that go with it, St. Martin’s definitely has benefited from it.

The church built by Father Stommel served the parish well for more than a century through several renovations, most notably that in the 1960s through the design and craftsmanship of furnishings by George Nakashima, a convert and parishioner who was one of the most celebrated artists in wood of the 20th century.

Betty Funk, a choir member whose parents moved in shortly after their 1931 marriage, remembers a town mostly populated by workers in neighboring paper mills. St. Martin’s was not only their place of worship, it was their social center too. Along with the Forty Hours, Lenten services and other devotions there was the Palm Sunday Breakfast, Summer Bible School, card parties and that grand Catholic tradition, bingo.

“It’s always been a welcoming church with a lot of spanersity,” she said. Mirroring Dubois’s opinion, she believes St. Martin’s is well served by Father Frederick Kindon, the parish’s current pastor.

Over the past century and a quarter New Hope has grown considerably, and that little church on the hilltop could not possibly serve the 1,100 families of today’s parish.

In the last decade alone, membership practically tripled. “It grew from 400 families,” Father Kindon said.

Sadly, a decade ago it had to be replaced at another larger location, with the first Mass on Christmas 2000. A small parish school opened the following September.

Five years later, much of the Nakashima artwork was installed in the new church, and at the same time the original Munich stained glass windows were also installed. On Holy Saturday last year, a newly commissioned work, a large corpus of Christ sculpted by local artist Andrew Logan, was placed on the steeple. Recently the bells from the former church (which now houses the borough offices) have been brought to the new location and were blessed by Cardinal Rigali during his visit.

However the real treasure of St. Martin Parish isn’t artifacts, it’s the people themselves.

“One of our biggest things is the generosity of our people,” Father Kindon said.

He listed the St. Vincent de Paul Society, H.O.P.E. (Helping Other People Every Day) and Aid for Friends.

It is also a sister parish to West Philadelphia’s Our Mother of Sorrows.

“We have a good mixture of old-timers and younger families with children,” Father Kindon said.

There are a number of programs addressed to the younger set, and he takes pride in that teens have been integrated into the lector program for all of the parish Masses.

“We have great people, very dedicated,” he said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.