Island church celebrates 125 years

Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv.
125th Anniversary of St. Michael, Tybee Island
April 10, 2016
St. Michael Catholic Church
Tybee Island, Georgia


There was a priest who liked to use gimmicks to divide his homily into parts. It was an easy way to help him organize his thoughts.

For Example, in the story of the multiplication of the five loaves, the priest would use the number five to divide us his homily into five parts.

With the story of the three servants who were given money to invest while their master was away, he would use the number three to divide his homily into three parts.

Well, his parishioners knew his style and they would get a little worried when he would read this gospel from John about the 153 fish!

I would not do that to you... but I might use the 125 year anniversary of St. Michael’s parish to help me organize my thoughts.

The gospel this morning comes from the 21st chapter of John. Just three chapters earlier we have the account of Peter warming himself over a charcoal fire while Jesus is being interrogated by Annas and Caiphas. Three times Peter was asked if he were a disciple of Jesus and three times Peter denied it.

In today’s gospel, and around another charcoal fire, Peter is forgiven. Notice that it is Jesus who initiates the process of forgiveness; rather than hold back and wait for Peter to come to him, Jesus made the first move toward reconciliation.

By doing this, Jesus offers an example to all other disciples. When we are hurt or wronged by another, the bonds of love that bind us to one another in Christ, demand that we forgo the tendency to sulk or brood over our injuries.

Jesus’ mandate to forgive requires us to be the first to try to heal and repair whatever bonds have been strained or broken. Pope Francis has declared this “Holy Year of Mercy” to remind us that we should forgive others as we have been forgiven by God.

Notice how tenderly and generous Jesus extends his forgiveness to Peter. Jesus does not bring up the past. Jesus does not remind Peter about the pain that his denials had caused him. Jesus does not say: “Peter, how could you”... ”after all that we have been through together”... How could you…”after all I have done for you... after all that I have taught you.”

Jesus did not say any of that… Although he would have been justified in instilling a little Catholic guilt in Peter... although Jesus wasn’t Catholic... he could have instilled some Jewish guilt. But he did not.

Rather than bringing up the past, Jesus extended a forgiveness that renewed the relationship that they shared, he reinstated Peter in his mission of drawing others to the Church and rehabilitated the man he would leave to lead and love, tend and feed his sheep.

Some Scriptures scholars suggest that when Peter announced that “he was going fishing” that he was stating that he was quitting… that he was returning to his previous career rather than continue as a disciple because he felt so ashamed.

Whatever Peter’s intention was, it was clear that Jesus did not want Peter’s discipleship to come to an end.

There is an encouraging lesson here for those of us who can identify with Peter. Failure need not put an end to ministry. Failure need not put an end to a relationship... with God or with others. Failure need not put an end to discipleship.

Failure and the acknowledgement of it, together with repentance and a request for forgiveness can be a valuable opportunity for growth and development.

It is very significant that Jesus did not replace Peter. But rather he rehabilitated, renewed and reinstated him.

Jesus did not demand that his disciples be flawless... but rather only to admit their flaws and be willing to try to become better, truer and more faithful disciples. Jesus wanted his disciples to experience His mercy and forgiveness.

Over the past 125 years, I wonder how many people were baptized into the faith, and were fed by the Gospel and the Eucharist.

Over the past 125 years, I wonder how many couples have walked down this aisle and left this church as husband and wife in a sacramental marriage.

Over the past 125 years, I wonder how many people came here to St. Michael the Archangel Church, grew in their faith and their love of God and at the end of their life left this church and were welcomed in the loving arms of Jesus in eternal life.

The year of 1891: Benjamin Harrison was President of the United States, Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera, George Hormel introduced ‘Spam’ to the world, Civil War General Sherman died at the age of 71, W.L. Judson invented the “zipper,” the first African-American priest was ordained in Baltimore, Pope Leo XIII wrote “Rerum Novarum” but all these events pale in comparison to the dedication of the Church of St. Michael on Tybee Island by Bishop Thomas A. Becker on July 5 of that same year.

Early accounts indicate that this church was originally intended to serve members of the Cathedral parish in Savannah who would spend the summer months at the seashore on Tybee Island.

St. Michael was established as a mission to the Cathedral until 1936 when it was first listed independently in the National Catholic directory.
Our records indicate that St. Michael’s became a parish in 1946 and built a new rectory in 1949.

Any reference to St. Michael’s Parish would be grossly deficient if there was no mention of St. Michael’s School which is such an important part of its 125-year history.

St. Michael’s School opened on September 1, 1948 and was staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. Sr. Mary Bride was the first principal.

In 1952, there were five graduates in the first graduating class.

In October of 1976, ground was broken for the new parish hall, gym and upper school which was dedicated in 1977. And in 1985, Mrs. Dell O’Neill was appointed the first lay principal.

In 1988, St. Michael’s School was the only elementary school on the Island.

St. Michael’s School enjoyed an outstanding reputation in its 62-year history but nonetheless closed its doors on May 28, 2010 due to low enrollment.

At the final graduation on May 19, 2010, Brandy Strickland wrote the following words that were read at the graduation:

A building that holds many hearts
Also holds many tears
Many tears of love
And Faith.
Those tears flow like a waterfall from the small family
The small family that lives in that building
The building that we wish could last forever
Could stay forever
With everyone
But all good things come to an end eventually
And this building’s time has come
It has played a part on the small island with the small family
And that building will be gone
And the family will scatter
Some to far off places
And others to joining another family
But that family will always stay together
In the hearts of everybody that lived in the building
The building of St. Michael’s School.

Over the past 125 years, 14 priests, 10 Franciscan Sisters, 1 Sister of Mercy and four deacons have served here at the parish. There were 17 principals who served at the school.

When we think about it, the past 125 years of St. Michael’s parish is all about the people who helped make this parish community what it is….a Community of Faith.

And now this little Church on the beach continues to serve the spiritual needs of residents and visitors alike.

Over the next 125 years, may St. Michael’s Church continue to be a Beacon of Light that guides people here and to a deeper and closer relationship to Christ. St. Michael the Archangel, defender of the Faith, pray for us.


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