"We have much to celebrate this day," said Bishop Richard J. Malone to more than 600 parishioners who gathered for the Inaugural Mass, four months after the bishop received word from the Vatican that St. Mary of the Angels had been designated as the 83rd minor basilica in the United States. "You have been chosen and honored by Pope Francis for special distinction. Your distinction will be your one and only life mission as a community of Jesus' followers who come here to be nourished and energized in our word and sacraments and then go out as missionary disciples ready to re-propose the Gospel to a culture that desperately needs to hear it."
Bishop Malone read, in Latin, the official Vatican decree designating the 102 year-old gothic revival church as a basilica. It is classified as a "minor" basilica because only a handful of basilicas are classified as "major," and they are all in Rome.
"This is the most significant hour in the 165-year history of the parish," said Father Gregory Dobson, VF, rector of the basilica. "Pope Francis said 'We have to find new ways to spread the Word of God to every corner of the world.' I wonder if he was thinking Olean. His designation of this church in such a rural corner of our nation acknowledges that God's people in this place, through the years, have done just that."
The Mass was an invitation-only event for parishioners and other invited guests—bishops, priests, civic officials and religious leaders from other ecumenical and interfaith places of worship in the Olean area. It marked the first time the congregation had ever seen the ombrellino and bell known as a tintinnabulum. These are permanent fixtures in a minor basilica which serve as reminders of the church's deep union with the Universal Church, the Holy See and the Holy Father. The parish also has a new coat of arms, which creatively congers up the image of the Enchanted Mountains which surround the church.
The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels is now held to a high set of standards as the basilica is expected to be an example of liturgical, ministerial and charitable offerings in the region. Since the announcement on March 17 by Bishop Malone, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels has undergone a name change to add "basilica" to its title and has enjoyed its distinction as a Catholic pilgrimage site with many pilgrims from the region stopping in for anything from lighting a candle, to taking a formal tour of the church, to taking part in various liturgies and sacraments.
"May we always lift up our eyes to the mountains from where God's help will come," said Father Dobson, who thanked Pope Francis, Bishop Malone and everyone involved in the historic designation. He gave special thanks to Jennifer Kane, a parishioner who spent nearly two years preparing the application to receive this designation. The parish was successful in convincing Vatican officials that the church is not only significant historically and architecturally, but also has a strong community life with strong catechesis, beautiful liturgy and outreach to those in need.
"What a celebration for this whole community of Olean, not just Catholics, but everybody down here," said Bishop Malone to reporters after Mass. "I think it lifts up the history and the significance of this part of our diocese."
The Inaugural Mass was held on June 29 deliberately. First and foremost, it is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, a day that basilicas are obliged to celebrate each year with great ceremony. It also happens to be the date that the church building was consecrated in 1919. That same day in 1929 saw the blessing of the magnificent set of 25 chimes, one of the largest sets built by the Deagan Chime Company. St. Mary's chime set is the last of its kind in operation in the United States.
More poignantly for this parish community, the date of June 29 honors the congregation's former pastor, Monsignor Edward Rengel, who built the splendid gothic church in 1915. This was the date of his ordination to the priesthood in 1894. He served as pastor of St. Mary of the Angels for 44 years and is interred in the crypt of the basilica along with his immediate predecessor, Rev. John J. Hamel who served 36 years as pastor of the Olean Roman Catholic church.
The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels houses a parish community of 1,350 families. Although established as a mission of St. Bonaventure College in 1855 and made an independent diocesan parish in 1876, the Catholic community in Olean traces its roots to worshiping on this same location two blocks off the city center since 1852.
Daybreak Television Productions provided a web live-stream of the Mass that was shared across the country. Watch the replay below:
More information on the basilica can be found at www.smaolean.org.