LYFORD — In the mid 1960s, neighbors gathered in an old mission to plan to build their church.

For residents like Julia Villegas and Rita Zdansky, their work would become part their legacies.

“We worked very hard to build the church,” Zdansky, 83, said Friday at her home.

Today, parishioners will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Prince of Peace Parish in 1967.

Bishop Daniel Flores will celebrate the anniversary with a Mass at 3 p.m.

“This is an opportunity for the church to give thanks to God for all the blessings for all these 50 years and ask for his continued blessings for the parish and the parishioners,” said the Rev. Gabriel Ezeh, the church’s pastor.

“The parishioners accomplished so much in spreading the faith.”

A celebration

For six months, Marina Quilantan-Rivera has worked to organize one of the town’s biggest celebrations.

“It’s a very emotional time as well as a time of celebration,” said Quilantan-Rivera, a member of the Lyford school board.

“We need to remember and honor the parishioners who took on this challenge to start this parish,” she said. “We are very, very humbled, honored and excited. I’ve grown up in that church. It’s everything to me. Celebrating 50 years is an honor.”

Across the Rio Grande Valley, 13 Catholic parishes celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year, said Brenda Nettles Riojas, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.

The parishes, she said, were founded after the diocese was established in July 1965.

Looking back

For many Lyford residents, the parish’s first church became their legacy.

In 1912, members of the small Catholic community began worshiping at an old mission church that was part of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Raymondville.

“It was an old stucco building,” Zdansky, who worked as a farmer, said. “There was no air conditioning. It was dilapidated.”

The congregation was out-growing the little mission church, said Villegas, 90, who owned a grocery store.

In the mission’s loft, Villegas’ daughter Irma taught catechism class for the parish’s children.

“When we didn’t have chairs, we sat on the floor if we had to,” said John Villegas, her son. “The windows were open. In those days, it was part of what you grew up with.”

Time to raise funds

Parishioners began to raise money to build a church to serve their growing congregation.

“We started with nothing,” Julia Villegas said.

So parishioners raised money with games like chalupa and bingo.

Teenage girls competed in contests that crowned the mission’s reina, or queen, to help raise money.

“We did everything,” Julia Villegas said. “Banana bread, barbecue, tamale sales, bake sales — whatever we could find, we sold.”

Making history

In November 1969, Zdansky’s daughter Karen was baptized on the day the church opened its doors.

In this farming town, the church’s opening marked a milestone for the area’s Catholic community.

“It was a very proud moment,” Julia Villegas said. “We started with a really small parish. It was a good feeling.”

Today, the parish is home to about 200 families.

In 2013, Ezeh, who’s from Nigeria, became the eighth priest to serve the parish.

Since then, the parish has used grants, loans and about $200,000 in savings to build a $1.4 million parish hall along with an office and rectory.

All about giving

“Willacy County is very poor and so is Lyford,” Ezeh said. “They are very generous parishioners. They give what little they have.”

Last January, the parish built a new chapel at its St. Martin of Tours mission in Santa Monica.

“Part of the reason for the growth is the many ministries,” said John Villegas, a retired high school assistant principal who used to serve as an altar server.

“The church encourages parishioners to get involved in ministries — it becomes part of your devotion,” he said.

“Youth is also more involved. For the church to grow and sustain itself, that’s the foundation it’s built on.”

Catholic parishes and churches celebrating 50-year anniversaries this year

March — San Martin of Porres Parish, Weslaco

April — San Martin of Porres Parish, Alton

June — Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Brownsville

July — Prince of Peace Parish, Lyford

July — Mary Mother of the Church Parish, Brownsville

July — St. Ignatius Parish, El Ranchito

July — St. Mary Parish, Santa Rosa

September — Holy Family Church, Edinburg

September — Sacred Heart Parish, Escobares

September — Holy Family Parish, La Grulla

September — Queen of Peace Parish, Harlingen

September — Sacred Heart Church, Hidalgo

November — St. Joseph the Worker Parish, McAllen