OLEAN — In what church officials called the most notable event in the entire history of the more than century-old parish, hundreds gathered into the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels Thursday night to solemnize its recent designation as a basilica.
The Mass brought together parishioners, bishops, priests, civic officials and local religious leaders, as well as a large police presence around the West Henley Street church. More than 700 people attended, according to St. Mary’s officials.
The Most Rev. Richard J. Malone, bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, formalized Pope Francis’ designation of the church as a minor basilica. It is only the 83rd basilica in the U.S.
“This is one of those magnificent and rather unique and rare celebrations in the Catholic tradition,” Malone told the Olean Times Herald after Mass. “It’s not often that any church is named a basilica by the Pope and it gives it a very, very special kind of magnificence and meaning for us.”
St. Mary’s underwent a rigorous two-year application process to be named a basilica. The application included thoroughly researching the 102-year-old gothic revival church’s history, an effort that was led by St. Mary’s Communications Director Jennifer Kane.
St. Mary’s has been preparing for Thursday’s Mass since it learned of its basilica designation on March 6. The Diocese of Buffalo, which now has three basilicas, and St. Mary’s made the designation public on March 17.
The Rev. Gregory Dobson, St. Mary’s pastor, said the basilica had a choice of either holding the Mass Thursday or not until the fall.
“We said, ‘Let’s jump in and see what we can do,’” he said. “It was intense. The choir had to be assembled, the choir had to learn music, they had to recruit the musicians and recruit the volunteers.”
St. Mary’s officials also wanted to have the Mass that day, June 29, because it is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, a day that basilicas are obliged to celebrate each year with a great ceremony.
June 29 is also the date that the church building was consecrated in 1919, as well as the date Monsignor Edward Rengel, a former St. Mary’s pastor who built the church in 1915, was ordained to the priesthood in 1894.
During the Mass, Malone read in Latin the official Vatican decree designating the church a basilica. The Mass was also the first time the congregation saw the ombrellino, a ceremonial umbrella, and the tintinnabulum, a ceremonial processional bell, which are tradition insignia unique to basilicas.
Those in attendance were also among the first to see the basilica’s new coat of arms.
“When you look at the coat of arms, we designed it with double entendre so that everything would have a spiritual meaning and something related to this community,” Dobson said. “The green oil that comes from the earth here from which the name Olean comes, is the green oil that we use in baptism. The hills that have been such an inspiration to me, they are echoed in the entrance of the church. The river, we’re so close to the river. It’s a godly place and that’s what I think we’re celebrating and it connects us in a powerful way to Pope Francis.”
When Malone addressed the congregation, he with a laugh reminded them not to feel bad about being a minor basilica, as only four of the roughly 1,700 basilicas worldwide are considered major basilicas. All four are in Rome.
He closed thanking Dobson for his service to St. Mary’s over the last 20 years. The congregation then gave a standing ovation for Dobson, who placed his hand on his heart.
“I am really excited because this is, as I’ve said so many times, the most significant hour in the history of this parish,” he told the Times Herald after Mass. “This celebrates today a real lifting up of this community.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)