Almost every week since St. Bernadette Church opened its doors in 1950, Ruth and Robert Waters have traveled the few blocks from their home in Silver Spring's Woodmoor neighborhood to attend weekend services.
In those 54 years, they sent all six of their children to the adjacent St. Bernadette School and spent many evenings at gatherings of church card clubs and other organizations.
Ruth Waters, who will turn 90 in March, and her husband, who is 91, still feel a strong connection to the Catholic church on University Boulevard near Four Corners. The reason is simple, they say.
"It seemed like home, and it stays the same, even through all the priests," Ruth Waters said. "They come and go, but it stays the same."
For many Catholic families in the surrounding Woodmoor neighborhood, St. Bernadette -- or St. B's as it is called by parishioners -- is the community's social, educational and spiritual center.
"There seems to be a quality here that existed in a simpler time when the church was a part of the community, a central place," said Janet Cantwell, 51, principal of St. Bernadette. The red brick church and school stretch nearly a block along University Boulevard near Colesville Road. The grounds include a playground and playing field that hosts Catholic Youth Organization sports teams as well as social and church fundraising events.
On Friday nights, families can be found strolling through the neighborhood to visit the playground or watch a game on the field. On weekdays, the early morning silence is broken by a group of parishioners telling jokes as they hit the parking lot pavement for push-ups during an exercise class.
The church sponsors a variety of social and community service groups that give parishioners opportunities to meet and develop friendships, further cementing their commitment to St. Bernadette.
Patty Millar, a 36-year-old mother of two who lives in Woodmoor (centered on University Boulevard and Colesville Road), began attending the church more than five years ago at the urging of neighbors, who were parishioners.
"Once I started participating, I started to meet the people, and they make all the difference in the world," said Millar, whose children, Emma, 7, and Graham, who turns 5 this month, attend the church school. "These people and this community could not be more giving and more friendly."
Church membership stands at 1,400 families, said the Rev. William J. Thompson, who has served as parish priest for seven years.
About 2 percent of the congregation are minorities, with more Asians attending than African Americans and Hispanics, although minority membership is on the rise, Thompson said. The church also hosts a Portuguese congregation -- Our Lady of Fatima -- which holds services on Sunday afternoon; its pastor, the Rev. Nelson Grandi, lives with Thompson in the rectory.
Theresa Ryan, 76, has noticed changes over the four decades that she has attended the church with her husband, Jack, 77, who has served as a Eucharistic minister for more than a dozen years.
"Now there are so many newcomers, we'll go to Mass and maybe I'll know 10 people," said Ryan, who lives in the nearby Burnt Mills neighborhood.
Even as the church has grown larger and more diverse, Ryan said, "loyalty and the friends we made there" keep the couple coming back every Sunday and participating in such organizations as the Tuesday Club, a social group for current and former church members over the age of 55.
Unlike some churches whose membership has declined because their congregations aged, St. Bernadette has seen a continuing infusion of younger parishioners, especially those attracted to the award-winning school.
"Young people are having children and families are continuing," Thompson said. "We're quite a nice neighborhood church."
The school, which has 492 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, draws neighborhood families seeking a Catholic education for their children.
"It is more than just the Catholic school in the neighborhood. A large percentage of our population [about 70 percent] is from the [Woodmoor] neighborhood," Cantwell said. "It really is valued as a community school. People who live in Woodmoor consider it that."
The proximity of the school and its close ties to the neighborhood are what drew Carol Walsh and her husband, Tim, to the parish.
"I wanted a community school, and I wanted an environment where the kids on our street went to the same school and the parents were hands-on," said Walsh, 39, who lives about a block from the school and has two daughters: Natalie, 5, and Margot, 7.
The school is open to nonparishioners, although only about 10 percent of the enrollment is non-Catholic. Priority for enrollment goes to siblings of current students, followed by children of parishioners who are enrolling for the first time and then nonparishioners, Cantwell said. Tuition ranges from $4,825 per year for a child of parishioners to $8,400 for a nonparishioner's child.
Parental involvement is a strong ingredient in the success of the school, which was designated a federal Blue Ribbon school in 2000 and 2001, Cantwell said. Parents are required to put in 25 hours of service per child each school year or contribute money instead.
"Clearly the majority of parents in the school community go above and beyond the mandatory requirement," she said, coaching sports teams and managing the altar boy schedule, for instance.
"When I say the school is a living part of the parish, it is a living part of the community. The parent support is phenomenal."