Living the Christian message

Special to the Herald

On the podium of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, 833 Magellan Drive in Bradenton, for Ash Wednesday were wooden boxes of sand, signifying the desert where Jesus Christ spent 40 days enduring Satan’s temptations.

The purpose of the sand was to help parishioners envision their own journey through the “desert,” said the Rev. Joseph Connolly, pastor of the church.

“We should be reflecting that inner (penitent) nature,” he said. “Lent is a purifying time. We rid ourselves of the excesses in our lives.”

Parishioners filled the church for Ash Wednesday masses, the beginning of the 40-day Lenten season where attendees are marked on their forehead with ashes. The Rev. Mark Klaus, a parochial vicar at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, explained how the ashes are made from soap and how they cleanse the spirit, said pastoral ministry assistant Maryellen Smith, a church parishioner for the past 10 years.

His words really made her think about the significance of the season.

“It really made sense,” said Smith. “It was put in a way anyone could understand even if you’re not Catholic.”

Lent represents the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert searching for his “inner self,” said Connolly. It is liturgical in nature and is often commemorated through fasting and prayer.

The 40-plus days of the Lenten season lead up to Easter, which is considered by many Christians to be the most important holiday of the year and signifies a time of rebirth for Christians.

Our Lady Queen of Martyrs honors the Lenten season traditionally with a more straightforward approach using minimal decoration, subdued music and stylized readings to express the message, said Connolly. The church’s theme this year is “Turn your stony hearts into soft hearts for God.” Lenten season Masses typically attract close to 2,000 people.

“We kept a lot of the distractions away so people could focus on the purpose,” he said. “Reflect, repent and go back to gospel values and helping your brothers and sisters. Love God. Take care of your neighbors.”

Fridays during the Lenten season, the church offers “Stations of the Cross,” to help people experience what it was like in the Holy Land on the pilgrimage, said Connolly. It’s a visual opportunity with 14 different “stations” of Lenten images on the wall.

“They find it’s a wonderful way to reflect on Jesus in an original way,” said Connolly. “People can reflect on Jesus and what he did in his last hours.”

Prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial during the Lenten season help parishioners focus and realize God’s intention for the season, said Connolly. All masses from Ash Wednesday until Easter exclude the Alleluia so parishioners afterward “can sing them with greater joy and faith,” according to the church bulletin. The three days prior to Easter, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, with Easter ultimately celebrating His resurrection and ascension to Heaven.

“The last three days are the rebirth; the new life we’ve hopefully come to experience through the penitence of Lent,” Connolly said.

As parishioners spend the next month contemplating the pilgrimage of Jesus Christ and the journey of their own lives, they are also reflecting on the church’s passage through the years.

The church is celebrating its silver anniversary this year. The parish was established 50 years ago by Archbishop Hurley of St. Augustine on Oct. 23, 1959, according to parish history. Several commemorative events are scheduled throughout the year.

Parishioners once held masses at the local Holiday Inn until a church was built at Ninth Street East, just south of 63rd Avenue. The Rev. Martin Flynn, the first church pastor for 22 years, came from Ireland, like Connolly.

“He was very beloved,” said Connolly. “The older people still remember him with great affection.”

The church can seat as many as 1,400 people and was dedicated in 1984. The old church, named in honor of Flynn, is now used as a place for fellowship and celebrations.

Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church is now in the Catholic Diocese of Venice, and the priests are of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis. Franciscan friars take vows “to live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Church; to further the work of (the) founder and patron, Saint Francis of Assisi, who followed the crucified and risen Savior without question or regret,” according to Franciscan Friars Immaculate Conception Province.

St. Francis of Assisi was known for proclaiming his “love for God” and making people aware of how good God was to them, said Connolly.

“Franciscans felt the inner call to serve God and rebuild the faith of people,” he said. “Franciscans get down there and make God present, in a way people can understand Him.”

Connolly was initially inspired to the priesthood more than 40 years ago. The Lord got into his head and heart, and he tries to bring that joy to his parishioners, Connolly said.

“I enjoy sharing my love and trust for Him with the people that come into this church,” said Connolly. “Hopefully it will make a difference in their lives.”

As a church following the Franciscan tradition, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs helps people see how God touches lives through Catholic traditions, said Connolly. It is a theme that transcends from the season of Lent to every day at the church.

“Jesus is in here and goes out those doors,” he said, pointing to his heart. “Our church tries to make the gospel message alive for God’s people.”

But what really has made Our Lady Queen of Martyrs a special place for parishioners, is the people within its walls and the many programs in which parishioners can participate and build their faith, said Maryellen Smith.

“It’s a good feeling when you walk into the church,” she said. “It feels like home. It makes you feel like family.”

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