ROME — U.S. Cardinal James Harvey, archpriest of Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, presided over a thanksgiving Mass to celebrate 100 years of Paulist ministry to the English-speaking community of Rome.

After leading the opening prayer, the 72-year-old native of Milwaukee described his long association with the Paulists’ mission in Rome by recalling he “had the privilege of being a deacon” at Santa Susanna, the Paulists’ first parish church in Rome, more than 45 years ago.

“I’ve been here in Rome, as you can see, for a long time, right after Sts. Peter and Paul” were martyred, he said to laughter.

“What a great joy it is for the church in Rome today,” for the Paulists and the U.S. and English-speaking communities to be able to commemorate the anniversary, he told those present in person and online. The Mass of thanksgiving was celebrated Feb. 27 at St. Patrick’s Church, the current official parish church for U.S. and English-speaking Catholics living in and visiting Rome.

The Paulists have led a parish in Rome to minister to Catholics from the United States and other English-speaking countries since 1922. All of their ministries are in English, including all Sunday and weekday Masses, providing the sacraments, religious education programs for children and the RCIA process for adults.

Pope Benedict XV had authorized that the Paulists use the Church of Santa Susanna for the purpose of creating a parish for U.S. Catholics after receiving an official request from U.S. President Warren Harding. The Paulist Fathers had been looking for a church in Rome as the city had a growing U.S. community, and the early 17th-century church, owned by the Cistercian community, was near the central train station and next to the old U.S. Embassy to Italy.

Paulist Father Thomas Lantry O’Neill was appointed the first rector of the church, and the first public Mass was celebrated Feb. 26, 1922, by Cardinal William H. O’Connell of Boston, who had traveled to Rome, but arrived too late, for the conclave that elected Pope Pius XI Feb. 6.

The church closed in 1940 during World War II when many in the U.S. community were leaving, but Paulist Father Don Forrester returned in 1944 with the liberating Allied troops.

The Paulists and parishioners continued to support the parish and its ministry through the years, including a five-year period of “exile” when Santa Susanna was no longer available and a new church had not yet been found. They forged an agreement with the Augustinian community to lease St. Patrick’s Church and an adjacent hall in 2017.

The next challenge was the COVID-19 pandemic, which, for Italy, brought tough restrictions and strict protocols, which have remained essentially the same for public celebrations in churches since May 2020, said the current rector, Paulist Father Steven Petroff, who arrived in Rome August 2019.

“More of my time here has been behind a mask, so-to-speak, than not,” he told Catholic News Service by phone Feb. 28.

Being able to still reach out to and connect online with parishioners of St. Patrick’s and the many families and students of the Marymount International School, where the Paulists serve as chaplains, has been “a moving and growing experience,” he said. Seeing the huge numbers of parents and students connect and participate, albeit online, was seeing the body of Christ — represented in the people of God together — “expressed in a unique and a new way.”

St. Patrick’s and the Paulist Fathers, in fact, were first-place winners at the Catholic Media Association’s 2021 Gabriel Awards in the category of “Religious Places — Videos Promoting Attendance” with their short film “We Need Each Other — St. Patrick’s in a Time of Pandemic.”

Like many parishes, the challenge now is helping people return to in-person worship “in a safe way” while supporting ways an online presence has helped those who are more elderly or live far away, Father Petroff said.

However, age was not a limitation Feb. 27 for one parishioner who, at 101 years old, received a round of applause during the homily delivered by Father Eric Andrews, the outgoing superior general of the Paulists.

“Older than our mission here! God bless you and thank you for being a part,” he said.

“It is mission that has kept this community together in good times and in bad, in the midst of tribulation and in exile from our worshiping space,” he said.

Father Andrews praised his brother priests for their dedication to Christ’s mission “of welcome, of gathering, of finding unity amongst all Christians, of reconciliation — welcoming people who have been estranged from the Catholic Church and bringing them back.”