OLEAN — Using a refurbished Sterling silver and gold-plated chalice that belonged to St. Mary of the Angels first pastor, the Rev. John J. Hamel, parishoners celebrated Mass and remembered their church community stands on the shoulders of congregants long ago.
Descendants of Hamel, passing through the church’s center aisle between the raised swords of the Knights of Columbus color corps, carried the chalice forward and presented it to the Rev. Greg Dobson as part of the kickoff for the month-long ceremony of the parish’s 140th year under the Diocese of Buffalo.
Dobson said Hamel, as a 26-year-old priest, was assigned to the parish which was then a “shanty” church run as a St. Bonaventure mission post. He served for 36 years, first making his bed beneath the original wooden building among the foundation stones and dirt, just yards from the marble crypt that now holds his remains.
Hamel’s great-great-great niece, Carolyn Scaglione, traveled from her home in the Atlanta, Ga. area to help present the chalice. She discovered her connection with Hamel while tracing her genealogy. Her mother and Hamel’s great-great niece, Bernadette Maurer, of Long Island, along with cousin Joanne Babbitt of Rushford, accompanied her in the presentation. After further research and discussion, the family members began to recall long-ago references to the parish priest.
The chalice, last used in St. Mary’s centennial celebration in 1976, was found in a church safe by Dobson this summer and refurbished. The chalice was also passed to the church in Hamel’s will.
When Hamel arrived Olean was a growing frontier town, home to an upper class, railroads and various industries and became home to a large number of immigrants and newcomers.
“When Father Hamel came here he found out he had to do something else” besides welcome the largely Catholic population as its only nearby place of worship, Hobson said.
Olean’s citizenry was a diverse group, Dobson said. Hamel, a “scholarly” priest who also held the title of dean, ministered to not only Irish immigrants — many of whom settled within the city limits — but also citizens of Italian, Syrian and French origin. His German-speaking parishioners, who made their homes in Knapp Creek, East Olean and Hinsdale, made a special demand: that the scriptures also be delivered in German, a language spoken by Hamel.
The young priest made his mark in the community, founding the Knights of Columbus and building the Oratory of the Sacred Heart in Portville in 1882. He invited the Syrians to worship and was an early supporter for the 1917 construction of St. Joseph’s Maronite Catholic Church in North Olean.
Hamel is said to have nearly drowned in the Allegany River while traveling to Westons Mills to anoint someone, and he used his own projector and visual aids to help educate the community on public health and disease prevention. During Hamel’s time the parish was enlarged twice. He built a parsonage at 118 W. Henley in 1880, where he died Jan. 15, 1912. The funeral was described as the largest the city had ever seen up to that time.
Those attending the services were invited to take part in the Annual Spaghetti Dinner, view a collection of artifacts from Hamel’s day, along with a collection of portraits of all pastors since 1876.
St. Mary’s has enjoyed a new interest from the public as people go to the church’s website, www.smaolean.org, and read the online edition of Hamel’s biography, “A Worthy and Capable Clergyman,” according to Jennifer Kane, communications director.