Christ the Redeemer parish in Sterling VA bid farewell to their Pastor of 25 years this weekend. Fr. C. Donald Howard, S.A. a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement celebrated both of the Spanish weekend Masses and two of the four English Masses. After every mass this weekend parishioners spent time with him in Atonement Hall during an extended “Donut Sunday” reception.
Several posters and decorations were on display marking different periods in Fr. Howard’s life: his childhood in Pennsylvania with his family and beginnings in the Atonement Friary of Graymoor at an early high school age; his time and travels as Pastor at Christ the Redeemer, his deep involvement with the large Spanish community, and the many different adjectives parishioners would use to describe him.
At the 10 AM Mass, Fr. Howard said he was grateful for the affirmations that he would be remembered as a preacher of thoughtful homilies and a writer with an avid readership for his column in the church bulletin. It was there, as he recalled in his last back page article that he first began conversations with parishioners that formed the bonds that grew over these many years of pastoring.
While there were many who agreed with his insights, there were also others who he jokingly said, “felt they needed to set me straight.” To the charge that he was a bleeding heart looking to help the needy, his reply was “that I’m a Franciscan and I’m supposed to act that way.” But more importantly, when told by people that his pastoring had “made them who they are” his reply was, “You are the way you are. I didn’t do that. You are a people of the Word of God. A people of common conversation and you are a people who share that narrative with lots of people.”
Fr. Howard’s pastorship oversaw the beginnings of a parish that first met in people’s homes for Religious Education and shared space with the Jewish Community in the Sterling Baptist church. As the church base grew, a church was built and rapidly grew. Bilingual from the very beginning, the original church became the Atonement Hall in the expanded church that stands today. The award-winning architectural design and abstract stain-glass windows are among the things that leave an impression on first-time visitors and long-time parishioners.
Ultimately, Fr. Howard was content to see the parish continue to be known for its liturgical celebrations (funerals, Sunday masses, Bi-lingual Easter Vigils), its faith formation serving a vast array of languages and cultures, and its welcoming community committed to outreach and service to migrants and the needy. Fr. Howard described his time at Christ the Redeemer like an ongoing conversation. “God spoke and we listened. We spoke to one another. We listened to one another. We became Church.”
Fr. Howard will continue his priestly vocation from Washington DC where he will continue to minister in English and Spanish, pursue Spiritual Direction, and lead retreats for laity. His February 3rd final back page column is available from the church website at the following url: http://www.ctrcc.org/pastor/latest_comment.htm