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Libertytown parish prepares for Christmas without a church

LIBERTYTOWN – Parishioners of St. Peter the Apostle in Libertytown remember Christmases past as almost magical times for their faith community. Worshippers would crowd into their darkened 134- year-old church on Christmas Eve to find the vibrant colors of a stained glass window of the Nativity richly illuminated by an outside spotlight.

Families would bring their children up to a large manger scene in the sanctuary so they could pay a visit to baby Jesus. And the majestic sounds of the organ stirred choir members and worshippers alike when Mass began with the familiar strains of “ O Come All Ye Faithful.”

This Christmas, things will be different.

The beautiful handcrafted German windows are gone, destroyed when firefighters smashed them to battle a four-alarm fire on June 3. The crèche figures and manger were also destroyed; so too were the organ, altar, tabernacle, pews and just about everything else.

While their quaint little brick church was ruined, the Christmas spirit is very much alive at St. Peter. Christmas outreach has continued in earnest, with hundreds of gifts collected for those in need. Teen carolers have lifted spirits throughout the community. Even though they don’t have a church, two of the Masses that are now celebrated in the hall are standing-room-only.

“It’s very hard to know how many Masses were celebrated here,” said Anne Mason, clutching a piece of badly charred marble from what used to be the church altar. As Ms. Mason stood in the former sanctuary not far from where the Nativity window once served as a Christmas beacon of hope, an icy wind whipped through what remains of the church. There is no roof. It was lost in the fire, along with the steeple.

“This was the center of our worship,” Ms. Mason said. “But our faith is not in a building. It’s in a solid foundation of people.”

Parishioners will celebrate Christmas at Linganore High School and the parish center’s Sullivan Hall this year. They have worked hard to spruce up the hall for the holiday, sewing new rust and gold-colored curtains and ordering new vestments and altar clothes. Plenty of poinsettias will be on hand for the celebration.

One parishioner cleaned and polished tarnished bells and candlesticks. Others volunteered to set up a sound system while still others transformed the wood from the former pews into small wooden crosses for parishioners.

Since the fire, Judy Smarsh, music director, estimated that staff members have increased their workload by more than 20 percent – rescheduling weddings, ordering new equipment, arranging schedules and coordinating meeting space. They have done it willingly, especially in light of the tremendous workload of their pastor, Father John Dietzenbach. The sole priest in a growing 1,900-family faith community, Father Dietzenbach has continued his pastoral ministry while working with parishioners to develop plans for a new church.

A cross was recently placed atop the church where the steeple once stood and the church walls were stabilized. Workers are now preparing to cover the exposed church interior to protect it from the elements, parish leaders said.

“We have been tested by fire,” said Dawn Miller, youth ministry director, “but we made it through.”

Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org

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