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St. Luke: Family watching out for family

It’s the little things that mean a lot.

That’s hardly a torn-at-the-edges cliché in Toni Southern’s lexicon.

Which is why she can still remember that long-ago phone call, word for word, from Sister Lenore.

Lenore Thomas, a Roman Catholic nun with the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was a pastoral associate at St. Luke the Evangelist, in Cheat Lake.

Southern, an active parishioner there, was still shaken by the sudden death of her husband six months before.

As she faced the all-at-once circumstance of widowhood, Southern wasn’t as present in the church as she had been before her tragedy.

She had a house to run, and more importantly, young children to raise.

Southern just knew she needed to be there for her family.

And a certain nun knew Southern’s St. Luke family would be there for her in a nanosecond.

“Sister Lenore,” Southern said, with a smile in her voice at the memory.

“She calls up and says, ‘Toni, you’ve got to get back into it. You need this.’”

If you want to know the sustaining dynamic of the church that is celebrating its 40th anniversary on Sunday, it’s all right there in that above sentence, Southern said.

A catechism of caring, for a parish family.

Emphasis on, “family.”

St. Luke, the family, was there before St. Luke, the worship space.

It’s a family going back to at least the 1970s, as the Cheat Lake area began growing.

From his office in the Northern Panhandle, then-Bishop John H. Hodges of the Diocese of
Wheeling-Charleston, watched and acted.

The bishop started the process of establishing a church that would serve as a mission of the former St. Theresa.

St. Theresa was located a short walk from WVU’s downtown campus – but a bit of a drive from Cheat Lake, especially during the region’s dicey winters.

That was in 1978.

When St. Luke was dedicated two years later as that mission, it was for a church that structurally didn’t exist.

Not yet.

Parishioners, though, did exist, and they appreciated the grace of Cheat Lake United Methodist, which allowed for services there during the eight months it took for St. Luke to be built on its perch at Jo Glen Drive.

In 1983, Bishop Francis Schulte, who followed Hodges to Wheeling after Hodges’ retirement, officially designated St. Luke – people, roof and steeple, included – as an independent parish.

“And we’re still at it,” Southern said.

Sunday, the current leader of the diocese is scheduled to be there on the occasion of the church’s fourth decade of officially being.

Bishop Mark Brennan will help celebrate the 4 p.m. Mass that day, with the help of the Rev. Biju T. Devassy, the church’s current pastor, along with former St. Luke priests. A reception will follow.

St. Luke’s striking, low-slung architecture has been added onto over the years, with a rectory, social hall and education center woven into the main space to accommodate an ever-growing congregation.  

It’s a congregation that’s at least holding steady, post-pandemic.

“COVID kept some away,” said Devassy, “but they’re coming back. I’d say we have around 350 families now.”

Devassy, echoing Southern, said he’s constantly struck by that sense of family which prevails in the place where he’s been giving homilies since 2018.

“It’s very hospitable, very welcoming,” he said.

“People want to learn and grow in their faith. And they watch out for one another. That’s important to the community.”

Amen, Southern said.

“If you’re not in Mass, or you haven’t been there for a while, people will notice,” she said.

“I like that they notice. They’ll call you up and check on you, to make sure you’re OK.”

You know: The little things.