When St. Mark's Catholic Church and school opened in West Hyattsville in 1958, a simple multipurpose sanctuary seemed practical for a parish exploding with young families wanting to worship and educate their children.
But this Saturday, Cardinal James A. Hickey, the archbishop of Washington Archdiocese, will celebrate Mass in a new $3.4 million sanctuary that is home to 6,000 parishioners who come from more than 50 countries.
"This is an historical point in our lives because we are setting up a landmark," said the Rev. Julio Alvarez, the Cuban-born spiritual leader of the parish, which over the years has gone from being 98 percent white and Anglo to 35 percent Hispanic.
St. Mark's has grown because many Central American immigrants, who have strong ties to the Catholic Church, have moved into areas such as Hyattsville, Langley Park, College Park and Lewisdale over the years. For them, the church has been a vital link to services as they struggle to fit into a new world.
Antonio and Teresa Chavez have been members of St. Mark's since 1961. The couple emigrated from Cuba in the late 1950s, when Antonio got a job as a geography professor at the University of Maryland and Teresa got a job as a Spanish professor at the University of the District of Columbia.
The church has six Masses on the weekend, and Antonio Chavez, 82, is one of the deacons who officiates over the two Masses in Spanish. He also coordinates a church distribution program that allows the needy to purchase food at a reduced price.
"Christ asked us to feed the hungry, and that is what we do," Chavez said. "One of the commandments of Christ is to visit the hungry. We don't consider the faith of people, just their needs."
The church has helped many Latino families get on their feet. Hector Perez, 40, came to the United States from Guatemala in 1976. Today, he is the parish custodian and groundskeeper. Perez said many people from Central America move to the United States "to get an opportunity for a better life."
But St. Mark's has older white parishioners, too, who remain in the church where they have educated their babies, married off their children and mourned their loved ones. Many of those people say the four-day dedication, which begins Friday, is the fulfillment of four decades of dreams.
"This new church stands as a tribute to the faith of the hundreds of people who made it happen," said Morgan Wootten, head basketball coach at DeMatha Catholic High School, who along with his wife, Kathy, chaired the fund-raising drive for the new building.
Morgan Wootten, 68, one of the most successful high school basketball coaches in the country, said the fact that church members raised more than $2 million for the new building "is one of the best examples of team effort that I have ever seen. Probably once in your lifetime you get involved in building a church."
The Woottens, who live in University Park, raised and educated all five of their children at St. Mark's. Kathy Wootten recalled that in the early 1960s, things were kind of hectic in the old chapel. "If you went to one of the later Masses, the rows looked like a snake. They used to encourage people with babies to go downstairs."
The Catholic Church has gone through several transformations when it comes to the construction of its buildings. At the beginning of the century, the church built grand places such as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington or St. Jerome's Catholic Church in Hyattsville.
But Susan Gibbs, spokeswomen for the Archdiocese of Washington, said that in the 1950s and '60s, chapels were built connected to Catholic schools because it was more cost effective. "There was baby boom and high demand for a Catholic education," Gibbs said.
William and Anne Kummel moved to the area from Baltimore in 1952. He was the manager of the old Manhattan Laundry in Washington, and she worked for the government. The couple's five children attended the parish school.
Anne Kummel said she has been waiting to worship in a separate church building since the church first opened.
"Formal or business attire is suggested for the men, and dresses are strictly required for the women," Kummel said. "Everybody has to be seated by 6 o'clock sharp, or they won't get in."
On Friday, the parish will dedicate "the Children's Wall" of the new sanctuary. Many schoolchildren donated money and purchased bricks for the building. On Saturday, the dedication program will begin at 6:30 p.m. There will be a festival from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Church officials said there are at least 118,000 Catholics in 35 parishes in Prince George's. The county has 21 Catholic elementary schools, four high schools and the St. Ann's Infant Maternity Home, which has an accredited high school for single mothers, in Hyattsville.
St. Mark's Catholic School has more than 600 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. The church's old sanctuary is being converted into a school auditorium that will be put to good use because, Principal Phil Robey said, "we can use all of the space that we can get."
Last week, the school's eighth-grade students performed the musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Students laughed, applauded and appeared to have a good time, and Sister Susan Barbara, the nun in charge of the musical, said she looked forward to having productions on a real stage.
Many of the St. Mark's students are excited about the new chapel for other reasons. David Pichardo, 13, and eighth-grade student and church altar boy said, "It is going to be an honor serving Mass in the first chapel."
But 9-year-old Gabriel Fremuth, a fourth-grader, said there is a deeper purpose for the new building. "People will drive by the church and get a sense of what the warmth of God is like because God is like a blanket wrapped around the whole earth."
CAPTION: Above, the Rev. Julio Alvarez, pastor of St. Mark's Catholic Church, stands outside the new sanctuary in Hyattsville. Below, Chris Waters, left, and Stephen Kenny, with C&R Contractors of Pennsylvania, install new pews.