Just passing through becomes half a century of living the Word

RIDGELAND—St. Anthony Church started 50 years ago thanks to John and Suzanne Marten.

The couple drove from Pennsylvania to their vacation home in Florida every year, said Fred Nimmer, who, along with wife Joan, is one of St. Anthony’s founding members. The Martens always stopped in Ridgeland, and on Sundays would drive to nearby Hardeeville for Mass. One day in 1963, they told the pastor they would pay to build a church in Ridgeland if the small Catholic community purchased the land.

At the official 50th anniversary celebration on June 30, Nimmer told the crowd of about 200 that as a tribute to the Martens’ generosity, St. Anthony has always reached out to welcome any visitor in need.

“This church has become known for showing compassion to travelers and people passing through in desperate straits,” he said. “We’ve never turned anyone away. The police have regularly sent us people who were stranded and hungry, and at one time we had as many as 14 stranded people who slept on the floor in our parish hall.”

A lot has changed in 50 years. Ridgeland, located in Jasper County, now has more than 4,000 residents. The town’s original Catholic community had about 12 families. Now St. Anthony has about 200 households, and has become more diverse as Hispanics move into the area.

Father Oscar Borda Rojas, administrator, said members come from Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, Venezuela, the Philippines and other nations.

Masses are held in Spanish and English every week, and the anniversary celebration included a bilingual Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone.

Bishop Guglielmone said the parish is a testament to the importance of saying yes to God.

“Those who asked to experience the presence of Jesus Christ here have received the healing touch of Jesus Christ,” the bishop said. “That is what our life as Christians should be about. Your history as a parish has shown what it means to be faithful.”

St. Anthony’s small size has fostered a sense of community, Joan Nimmer said.

In the early years, members did whatever it took to keep the church running, including custodial and yard work, and they helped build a parish hall several years.

“Over the years, we’ve grown, but we’ve still stayed like a family and watched out for each other. When new people move in, they become part of the family,” said Evelyn Freeman, who was raised in the church.

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