Portville Heritage Day lived up to its name Saturday, as locals took time to honor the memory of beloved Portville religious leader Father Manhardt.
A rededication service was held at noon in Pioneer Park, centering on the recent repair of the park’s stone fountain. The fixture was dedicated to the Rev. Robert J. Manhardt on Sept. 19, 1977, on an afternoon of scattered rain showers — quite different from the sunny heat of this weekend.
“It was an occasion to bring the community together who loved Father Manhardt,” says community organizer Syd Evans, “and for those in attendance to rededicate themselves to community service and good citizenship, which Father Manhardt exemplified.”
According to a Times Herald article about the original dedication, the fountain cost of construction was $813 — or roughly $3,436 in today’s money — an amount raised in a fund drive that drew in more than double what was needed to build. Father Manhardt was described then as “a true hero whom any young person can take as an ideal to imitate,” and “a man who used all his resources for the poor and who probably never took ‘a real vacation.’”
The fountain hadn’t worked for a couple years, so Saturday’s ceremony marked its refurbishment by the village, according to Evans. She says further work is planned to improve the structure.
The afternoon included a prayer by Father Patrick Melfi and words from Portville Mayor Anthony Evans. Also, several community members shared fond memories of Father Manhardt including former Mayor Frank Aloi and Village Trustee Joe McLarney.
“Father Manhardt was well loved and influential in our community,” says Syd Evans, who is also the wife of Mayor Evans. “Some referred to him as a priest’s priest. Others shared personal stories of remembrance of his influence in their lives.”
She added it “didn’t matter who you were or what denomination you were from — he was always so giving and helpful.”
According to Father Manhardt’s obituary in the Times Herald: “The Rev. Robert J. Manhardt, pastor of Sacred Heart Church of Portville and St. Michael’s Church of Westons Mills, died May 21, 1976.”
At the age of 59, “he became ill and asked a neighbor to take him to a doctor. He was taken immediately to the Wormer Medical Center. Death was apparently due to a heart attack.”
“Father Manhardt had served as pastor since June 18, 1963... His first and only pastorate was the parish of Portville and Westons Mills.”
The notice added that after Father Manhardt’s wake, he was brought to lie in state for several hours at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church.
In the May 29, 1976, edition of the Times Herald, a special column by Ardythe Nothem in memory of the cherished priest was published titled “Afternoon Mass In A Portville Church.” The love letter to Sacred Heart — which last held weekly Mass in 2007 — described the beauty of attending a service led by Father Manhardt.
An excerpt reads:
The Mass begins. The strong voice of the priest fills the church. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
You look surprised. This is no ordinary chant. Instead of using a “let’s-hurry-up-and-get-this-over-with” tone, the pastor speaks with conviction and sincerity. The Mass rolls on like a true dialogue between priest and people. He speaks firmly and eloquently to them and they answer unhesitantly.
Do you ask, who is this unusual man and why have you not heard of him before? Few priests have such freshness, such fervor.
His name is Father Robert Manhardt. Some years ago he came here from Buffalo where he had served in… parishes for twenty years.
But he looks so young, with the wiry crewcut hair winging to a widow’s peak on his forehead, the intense blue eyes, stubbly nose, wide mouth and full strong chin.
Look closer. Observe the graying hair and the deep lines from his nose to the corners of his mouth. Both strength and gentleness lie in that face.
Father Manhardt takes his sturdy stance before the communion rail and searches through the congregation with his penetrating eyes.
“People — the kingdom of heaven is like unto a mustard seed.”
He builds up the analogy of grace in our hearts, starting tiny and simple and then growing to splendid fruition. He drops his voice to a quiet confiding, then quickly increases its volume to a mighty sound that fills the small place of worship. You feel as if he is looking right at you, persuading you, hoping to reach your mind and heart. Small boys are enthralled by his gaze as he looks at his people, not through or above his people.
This man acts as if he, too, needs God, as if he were inviting us to go with him, helping each other to heaven, instead of tagging along behind on the hem of his robe. What kind of man is this?
He is a humble man who loves and helps his parishioners as himself.
… As (churchgoers) sing the closing hymn, with Father Manhardt’s voice dominating like a zealous evangelist, take another look around this plain, simple house of worship. There is a fellowship between priest and people.
The Mass is ending. You have a strange glow, my friend. I see you agree with me — the Church is “no dead pile of stones and unmeaning timber. It is a living thing.”