St. Margaret Mary celebrates 75 years in Swannanoa Valley
SWANNANOA — In the fall of 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, the faithful gathered in Swannanoa Valley for the first Mass celebrated at St. Margaret Mary Church. Seventy-five years later, this small but dedicated church joyfully observed its anniversary with an outdoor Mass, picnic and raffle, lively Hispanic music, history exhibit and tours.
Father Matthew J. Leonard recalled the founders of the church during his homily and reflected on their spirit of sacrifice during that troubled era. What should have been a stumbling block to the church's founding, however, seemed instead to galvanize those early parishioners.
Pictured: Father Matthew Leonard, pastor, says the blessing during a recent celebration marking St. Margaret Mary Church of Swannanoa's 75th anniversary. (Photos provided by Beth Searles)
The need for the Church's presence in the Swannanoa Valley surged in the late 1920s as textile manufacturers and workers relocated from New England to this remote valley. Prior to 1936, Catholics of the area had to make a day's trip to St. Lawrence Basilica in Asheville, sometimes in difficult weather. Responding to the need were benefactor Kate Kelley through the Catholic Extension Society of Chicago, and Bishop William Hafey who purchased the land – but it was those early parishioners who cultivated the beginnings of St. Margaret Mary.
That same spirit inspires today's parish of about 322 members. Claudia Graham, task force manager for the celebration, refers to St. Margaret Mary Parish as the "quiet church" that's nonetheless generous in its charitable efforts, giving to organizations like Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministries and helping hundreds of families annually through the parish's St. Vincent de Paul Society. The plight of the needy is just as real today, explains Graham, just as it was in the 1930s.
Reaching out to their Grovemont community, St. Margaret Mary Church offered tours. Visitors heard the story of the unusual Stations of the Cross, handmade of hammered copper by a serviceman, Mike Schnekser, who was a patient at Swannanoa Rehabilitation Center in the 1950s. Encouraged by his therapist, Renee Kantor, Schnekser finished the carefully detailed project in six months, with limited resources.
Stained glass windows in the church were similarly a labor of love in the late 1990s, when Father Andrew Latsko, Mary Wilke and Julie Howachyn spearheaded that project, and parishioners held numerous fund-raisers. Depicting the life of Christ through the mysteries of the rosary, the striking windows are the work of Fairview artist Rich Leech.
Three founding members are still living. Opal LemIeux, Muriel Stone and Marilyn Brown help to represent the faithful stewardship of 75 years of St. Margaret Mary Church, which has celebrated 760 baptisms, 481 first Communions, 244 marriage ceremonies, and more – the "quiet" work of the Catholic faithful in this picturesque valley.
— Beth Searles, correspondent