1949 to 2009

A History written by Kathleen R. Sull

From the very first days of this parish to the present time, St. Mary Magdalene (SMM) has been blessed with dedicated parishioners and fine clerical, religious, and lay leadership. This brief history will highlight some moments in our parish history.

2010 to the Present

A History written by Mary Hrich

Father Laubacher: The Building Years


Bishop Edward Hoban founded this parish on January 27, 1949 and Fr. Harold Laubacher was pastor from then until he retired on September 10, 1968. During his pastorate the parish grew enormously- from 600 to 4,000 families. There were 196 students during the 1949-50 school year, and by 1968 there were 1 ,549 children in grades one through eight. But the numbers don't begin to tell the story. The new parish needed a church and school, and parishioners had to raise money to build them. The Ladies Guild held bake sales, card parties, fashion shows, dances and craft fairs. Holy Name men organized summer festivals, turkey raffles, and autumn carnivals. In addition, they visited every parish family to solicit building fund pledges. Fr. Laubacher bought property, hired architects and contractors, and oversaw construction. He sometimes even "helped" the bricklayers by showing them how they could do their job more efficiently.


The Church: Throughout 1949, Sunday Masses were held in public schools. The first Mass in the unfinished church was

 celebrated on March 5, 1950 and Bishop Hoban dedicated the 

completed building on September 17, 1950. The church was the perfect size for the young congregation. However, the 1950s housing boom brought hundreds of families to Willowick, and many of them joined St. Mary Magdalene parish. By 1956 the church had to be enlarged by cutting the vestibule off from the main part of the church and moving it fifty feet closer to Vine Street, adding seating capacity for 400 more people. Fr. Laubacher reported to the bishop: "To accommodate the people for Mass during this time, we had eight masses each Sunday, four of them in the gymnasium." When the bishop established St. Justin Martyr parish in Eastlake in June of 1962, more than 400 families transferred from St. Mary Magdalene. Our church was still crowded because the 1960's 

brought even more young families with children into Willowick.


The School: On October 24 1949, four Ursuline sisters and two lay teachers welcomed 196 students. The school building

 had only six classrooms- an adequate size then, but not for long. During the 1950's, the school had to be enlarged several times. Classrooms were added in 1951, 1954 and 1955, but even that wasn't enough space for all the children. By September 1956, enrollment was so high that no new students were admitted. In 1957, a second story was added to the 

school, and in 1960 another addition brought the classroom total to thirty-four. The late-fifties through 1968 were the years of wall-to-wall desks and half-day sessions in St. Mary Magdalene School. Dedicated Ursuline sisters and lay teachers continued to hand on the faith to our parish's children in the day school and parish school of religion program.

Fr. Scharnitzky: Years of Change

Church 1960sThe decade of the 1960's was a tumultuous one, a time of great change in our country and our church. The Vatican II Ecumenical Council (1962-65) began a new era in Catholicism. Changes most obvious to those of us in the pews were: a priest celebrant who faced the congregation, Mass prayers and hymns in English rather than in Latin, and greater lay participation. Some Catholics welcomed the new spirit in the church while others longed for the old ways, and both sides were vocal about their views. Fr. Joseph F. Schamitzky, who succeeded Fr. Laubacher as pastor in 1968, tried to meet the needs of all parishioners. He instituted Saturday Masses (newly allowed after Vatican II) and sponsored solemn novenas in honor of the Miraculous Medal (a traditional devotion). He agreed to a Home Mass program (beginning in October 1971) and continued the traditional Eucharistic Devotions (formerly known as Forty Hours). Laymen began to read Scripture during Mass, and laywomen began to do the same in the 1970's. During Fr. Scharnitzky's pastorate, the Christian Family Movement began in our parish. Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) religion classes, later called Parish School of Religion, (PSR) served preschoolers through high school students, and included classes for "mentally handicapped and hard of hearing" children. The Athletic Association flourished, and parishioners enjoyed the first of many annual parish picnics. School enrollment began to gradually decline in 1968, eliminating half-day sessions and overcrowded classrooms. Fr. Schamitzky served the parish well for six years, but his failing health caused him to retire in 1974. Throughout his pastorate, the Ursuline sisters and lay teachers continued to educate parish youth in the day school.

The Pastoral Team: The Collaborative Years

In July 1974, a new leadership era began in St. Mary Magdalene parish. Instead of a pastor and his priest assistants, a pastoral team was formed with Fathers John McDonough, P. William Head, Thomas J. Hyland, and Robert J. Kloos. In 1975, Sr. Gale Mam, OSU and Sr. Patricia Ross, CSJ joined them. By March 1975, the pastoral team had established the Parish Outreach Program (P.O.P) to encourage communication between the team and parishioners. Volunteer hosts invited people into their homes to discuss likes, dislikes and hopes for the parish with a team member who listened and answered questions. The pastoral team then considered P.O.P responses when planning their ministry. The team was learning who belonged to the parish and what they needed. Another venue for communicating with parishioners began in 1977 with the monthly 8-page parish newspaper, "Crossroads", which was mailed to every parish family until 1982. (This method of informing and inspiring parishioners was reinstituted in 2001 on a bimonthly basis, and it is supplemented by a one-page monthly ministerial newsletter included in parish bulletins.)

During the past 35 years the pastoral team and parishioners have continued to create and sustain a variety of spiritual, social, educational, charitable, and athletic programs to serve our faith community. Long-time parishioners still remember the first Parish and Finance Councils and commissions, and we appreciate those who have served in the years since then. The early 1% program accepted donations of either food or money; now we contribute via Sunday envelopes to the program administered by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Many people can recall the vibrant retreat programs- "Christ Renews His Parish" for adults and the spirited youth retreats. (Remember the guitar group's enthusiastic music during Masses in the gym?) The Athletic Association provided parish youngsters with sports programs for many years. Parishioners hosted "A Day for the Life of Your Marriage" for engaged couples and "Marriage Encounters" for those who were already married. And, we cannot forget Genesis II, ecumenical discussion groups, parish art shows, pictorial calendars, and our annual summer Festival which began in the 1950's, did not happen for many years, and began again in 1991. 

1999: As We Approached the New Millennium

Pastoral Team

The church: During the 1980's, the pastoral team and a lay committee spent months assessing parish needs, setting 

priorities and budgets, and meeting with church designers and architects. They concluded that we needed a reconfigured church to replace the long, narrow structure of 1956. Our "new" church was rededicated by Bishop Pevec on November 12, 1989 and includes a gathering area, Eucharistic chapel, a highly visible baptismal font, and reconciliation rooms. The altar is centrally located with pews on either side. This more intimate worship space allows parishioners to see the altar and each other during Mass, and to remember that we- 3,000 families- are the church. The School: In 1999, eighteen day-school teachers and one aide taught 303 children (36 in preschool and 267 in kindergarten through eighth grade) in sixteen classrooms as well as in the library and gym, music and computer rooms, and science classroom and lab. This was the first year that no Ursuline sisters taught in our day school. We remain grateful for their service in the past as well as that of our equally dedicated lay teachers, past and present, who taught parish children in a faith-filled environment. The PSR program's 1999 enrollment included 438 public school children and teens. The Latchkey afterschool program, which began in the 1992-93 school year with five children, served eighty-eight children in 1999. During the summer of that year, the school building was modernized to assure the safety of students, to provide meeting rooms adjacent to the church, to update heating and cooling systems, and to install new communication technology. All of those improvements were efforts to serve this parish in the best way possible.

2000 to 2009: More Collaboration and Change

Early in this decade, Bishop Anthony Pilla wrote a pastoral letter which said (in part): "If our Church is to flourish in this new century .... we need to address the challenges we are facing from suburban growth, urban decline, rural development, fewer priests and religious, and increasing demands ... We need to sustain and expand the vital ministries we have, while discerning new and creative means of providing ministry in the future." With that introduction, Bishop Pilla initiated a diocesan-wide program called Vibrant Parish Life (VPL) in which parishes prepared to collaborate with neighboring churches by sharing resources, personnel, and facilities. In November 2001, our church's bi-monthly newspaper introduced the VPL progrram to parishioners and continued to update us about its progress. In 2002, St. Mary Magdalene's VPL (phase I) coordinating team participated in diocesan training sessions and throughout that summer and fall, they kept parishioners informed about the progress of the VPL program. In November of 2002, our VPL team began a series of Appreciative Inquiry listening sessions- surveys and Town Hall meetings -- designed to ask parishioners' opinions about the vibrancy of St. Mary Magdalene and to receive their suggestions for how the parish could retain that vibrancy in the future. Parishioners, of all ages and life circumstances, participated including PSR and day-school children in grades 4 through 8, teenagers, homebound and "snowbirds." Early in 2003, the parish staff and VPL self-study subcommittee began an assessment of all aspects of our parish life: liturgies, ministries, faith formation, education, demographics, staffing, facilities, and finances. And, during Lent that year, VPL hosted a mission that celebrated the gifts we share within our parish: as individuals, as families, and as members of our faith community. By May of 2003, the VPL team had completed phase 1 of the process by evaluating and prioritizing all results and reporting them to the diocese.

Since 2003, our pastoral team and VPL II committee have incorporated results from the self-study, parishioner suggestions, and diocesan guidelines into our parish life. We now collaborate with Fr. Kevin Liebhardt and the parishioners of St. Justin Martyr (SJM) parish in several ways. For example, we share our faith formation and spiritual programs such as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and Vacation Bible School (VBS) as well as Life in the Eucharist and Food for the Soul. In addition,our Parish Councils and Stewardship committees work together.

We have initiated our use of Time, Talent and Treasure as a part of our stewardship efforts, which reminds us of the importance of: the TIME we spend in our personal relationship with God through prayer, scripture study and devotions; using our TALENTS in service to our families, our parish and our community; and sharing our financial TREASURE with our parish and those less fortunate. Our faith formation programs have also changed. In 2002, parishes were invited by Bishop Pilla to participate in a pilot program to restore the order of our initiation sacraments to Baptism, Confirmation, and first Eucharist. After careful study by the pastoral team and staff, we decided to participate in this program and in September 2003 we instituted the ROSI (Restored Order of Sacraments of Initiation) program. In addition, our Parish School of Religion (PSR) classroom-based program has now become GIFT (Growing in Faith Together), a monthly, multi-generational learning experience that enriches the faith of everyone who participates. Another significant change was the consolidation of our parish day school with that of SJM in September of 2006. Our day school enrollment had dwindled to barely 200 students while maintenance costs for our large, aging school building required more money than we received from tuition and parishioner contributions. St. Justin Martyr's school buildings are newer than ours and they had room for our students so the decision made economic sense, but it was emotionally difficult for parents who had fond memories of attending classes in "our" school building. Fortunately, students in the new SMM/SJM school continue to receive an excellent Catholic education. Unfortunately, during these difficult economic times, enrollment continues to decline while the costs of maintaining a day school rise.

As we enter our 61st year under the leadership of the pastoral team- Fr. Ron Wearsch and Fr. Ted Lucas - we recognize that responsible financial stewardship may require further changes. Most rooms in our nearly 60-year-old school stand empty and our financial situation suggests that we need to consider repurposing that building. However, we are reminded that our buildings do not define us as a parish. Throughout the past 60 years, the people of St. Mary Magdalene have celebrated God's love, cared for those in need, shared our faith with children and adults, 1 ministered to each other and participated in parish groups. We have done this together in the past and will continue to do this in the future because we are a vibrant parish.

2010 to the Present

Since our founding in 1949, St. Mary Magdalene parish has been committed to changing the lives of people for the better. In recent years, as our diocese evolved, so did our parish. Faced with a large building that was not regularly utilized, we reached out to the greater community and found two organizations in need of space. With Lake-Geauga Head Start preschool on the lower level and New Day Academy upstairs, the rooms are once again lively with laughter and learning.

After 16 years on the pastoral team, in 2013, Fr. Ron Wearsch was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Avon Lake. At that time, Bishop Lennon changed the formal leadership structure of St. Mary Magdalene Parish back to a traditional Pastor/Parochial Vicar model and named Fr. Ted Lucas as Pastor. The next year, Fr. Ted Lucas was placed on sick leave, and Fr. Stephen Kaminski was appointed Pastor of St. Mary Magdalene.

In his short time as Pastor, Fr. Stephen Kaminski looked with fresh eyes at the parish, consulted with parishioners, and developed a pastoral plan intended to care for the needs of our community well into the future. In Lent of 2016, after a brief battle with an aggressive form of leukemia, Fr. Stephen died. Although he did not see in person the fruits of his efforts, the community of St. Mary Magdalene was transformed and united by his illness and death. God’s grace was palpable throughout these years of transition, and diocesan support was unwavering.

We move forward with the sense of a new era, under the pastorate of Fr. Steven Breck, appointed by Bishop Lennon in 2016. Throughout these years of change, St. Mary Magdalene has remained a vibrant community, committed to our common faith and inspired by the Spirit who calls each of us to use our gifts to changes peoples’ lives for the better. We look forward to the next step of our faith journey together, as we each respond to our baptismal call.