Our Lady of Lourdes Parish peers into past

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Joyce Walsh describes herself as "not a morning person." In other words, she prefers to sleep in.

But one morning in August, she arose at the crack of dawn to get to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in University City.

"I was the first person here, at 6:45," she said, with a laugh. "We were scheduled for 7."

After Pastor Msgr. Richard Hanneke and a half-dozen others joined her, the group stepped back in time and connected with Lourdes' original parishioners.

In conjunction with the parish's 100th anniversary, they opened the time capsule inside the church cornerstone, laid by then-Archbishop John J. Glennon in a grand celebration at the new parish on Oct. 14, 1917. According to newspaper accounts, 90 Knights of Columbus ushered in the archbishop, with 19 archdiocesan priests and about 2,000 people in attendance.

On Aug. 23, stone masons from BSI Contractors worked six hours to loosen the cornerstone. The next morning, they pulled it from the church wall and carried it to a nearby table for the big reveal.

Parish historian Bob Wilhelm "had a huge smile on his face opening that copper box that no one had touched for 100 years," said Walsh, the parish's 100th anniversary chair. "It was an amazing moment for him ... and for all of us."

At first, the contents of the small box — 10" x 6" x 3", just 180 cubic inches — seemed unrecognizable. Items were in advanced stages of decay and disinitigration, having spent almost a century in an unprotected environment with massive shifts in humidity and temperature. The box had oxidized to green, with the copper still brownish beneath the brittle green satin ribbon that had sealed it.

"I'm sure it was pretty when it was brand new," Msgr. Hanneke said.

Despite the decay, archdiocesan archivist Rena Schergen identified a few items on the spot before it all went into conservation envelopes and sleeves for further study in the climate-controlled archives at Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury.

The items, which are on display in the parish rectory through Oct. 1, send a message of the original parishioners' faith, as well as bit about life in 1917 — coins, and a green, plastic tax token that had melted.

A leather-backed scapular of the Sacred Heart initially was the most obvious. Though the covering was yellowed and brittle, the leather and thread were well-preserved. Jesus' eyes, hairline and the top of His head are visible.

Back at the archives, Schergen and coworkers Emily Sanders and Eric Holt needed sleuthing to identify the rest, including: a Lourdes souvenir candle (mostly melted but the writing on its paper wrapper intact just enough for identification); photos of Pope Benedict XV and Archbishop Glennon (the letter "c" of a copyright inscription helped identify it); and a certificate of authenticity for a small triangular stone from the actual Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in France. The parish's first pastor, Father Francis J. O'Connor, brought the stone from France.

Msgr. Hanneke called the Lourdes' stone "fascinating."

"They had wrapped it in plain paper, and if you look at it with the naked eye, you can't tell what was written," he said. "When (arcivists) were able to pull up the inscription that was there, that was kind of neat."

The blue ink had faded into a splotchy purple, but the writing became clear after Schergen used Photoshop to invert the colors.

"Pretty amazing; I totally felt like I was in National Treasure with that one," said Schergen, who described the entire time-capsule process as "really cool" and "really fun."

The parish will determine what items to put inside the new, preservationist time capsule for 2116 parishioners to discover. Perhaps a smart phone, with a charger and solar cell for power. Maybe a thumb drive. They'd hold lots of data, but who's to say the technologies will operate in the 22nd century. Possible tangible items include information about recently canonized St. Teresa of Kolkata, items from students and parishioners, and religious artifiacts from Msgr. Hanneke.

Whatever goes inside, Our Lady of Lourdes already is looking toward the future, in the midst of a $5 million capital campaign to add a parish center, make all parish buildings accessible and refurbish its campus for the future. 

>> Our Lady of Lourdes

What: 100th anniversary time capsule

When/where: 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., Monday, Sept. 26 to Friday, Sept 30 and 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct.1, in the rectory

Why: To see the items that original parishioners put aside 100 years ago for their future counterparts

The future: Parishioners and the parish school's students already have suggested items to put in the new time capsule for discovery by their 2116 counterparts. Visitors through Oct. 1 are invited to do the same.

>> Centennial Mass and Gala

When: 5 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12

Where: Our Lady of Lourdes Church

Gala: 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12, The Chase Park Plaza

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