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For the past 32 years, Sandy Lent has attended daily Mass at St. Mary's Church in Auburn. But her story at St. Mary's began long before that — on Christmas Eve 1938, when her parents, Joseph and Roz Donovan, eloped in the rectory. 

At the time, Monsignor William E. Cowen was the pastor at St. Mary's Church. An Auburn native, Cowen had been baptized at St. Mary's at 10 years old and graduated from St. Mary's School in 1892. He was the church's sixth pastor and was later appointed monsignor by Pope Pius XII. 

Lent laughed as she recalled her parents' late-night elopement at the church. Her father had approached Cowen on a whim and asked if he'd marry the couple on the spot. Fortunately, Lent said, the Donovans had brought two witnesses. Unfortunately, her mother was not Catholic. 

"Nowadays, there are so many restrictions to getting married (in the Catholic Church), so the idea of doing that today is just out of the question," Lent said. 

But Cowen reportedly smiled and performed the short ceremony, and the family has been with the church ever since. 

Lent's story is just one of many at St. Mary's, as the church celebrates its 150th anniversary in Auburn this month. 

On Aug. 15, 1868, the Rev. Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid established St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, and the Rev. Thomas A. Maher was appointed as its first pastor. Maher purchased property at the corner of Clark and Green streets, where he erected a temporary wooden structure as the first church building. 

By 1877, St. Mary's added a Gothic stone structure and a school, and in the 1920s, the parish began to install bells in the church tower. Those bells rang for the first time on Oct. 3, 1926. 

Today, the Rev. Frank Lioi serves as St. Mary's 10th and current pastor. Lioi came to the parish in 2004 and recently highlighted the "Gothic splendor" of the church in a letter to Auburn Mayor Michael Quill and city council. 

"All of us present here today from St. Mary's Church stand on the shoulders of those immigrants who built our magnificent church building and the faithful parishioners who supported it all these years," Lioi said. "I like to believe that this magnificent building is a reminder of God's presence in our world. And I like to hope that those who hear the bells of St. Mary's each day are hearing a call to be the best person God has created them to be." 

Lioi's letter came in response to a proclamation from Quill and city council, which declared Aug. 15, 2018, as St. Mary's Church Day in Auburn. Quill recalled his own family's history at the church, where his parents, grandparents and great grandparents attended Mass. 

"St. Mary's is a very big part of the entire Auburn community ... but it's also a very important part of my family," he said. "One hundred fifty years for anything is quite an accomplishment." 

And after all that time, Lioi said, St. Mary's is still a strong presence in the community. Currently, there are roughly 1,100 households registered at the church, and he estimated between 900 and 1,000 people attend Mass each weekend. 

"For a downtown parish, we've continued to do pretty well," Lioi said. "There is a very supportive congregation that is very proud of their church and that has been very constant." 

And for Lent and her family, St. Mary's will always remain a constant in their lives as well. 

"It's given me a faith I can hold onto all my life," Lent said, noting that she, her daughter and her grandson were all married at the church. "All the joys and all the sorrows, it's always been there. It's a place of peace ... and it's been a rock for everyone in my family." 

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Staff writer Megan Blarr can be reached at (315) 282-2282 or megan.blarr@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @CitizenBlarr

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