'150 Years New'

Parish marks anniversary with Staten Island's oldest and newest churches

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As the people of St. Joseph-St. Thomas parish on Staten Island held a touching and colorful celebration June 28, Cardinal O'Connor told them, "The wonderful thing about this parish is not that it's 150 years old--it's 150 years new, one of the most dynamic parishes in the archdiocese."

The cardinal rededicated the renovated original church, St. Joseph's, the oldest Catholic church in continuous use on Staten Island. Then he traveled in a motorcade of 15 cars, each representing a decade of parish history, to the borough's newest church, St. Thomas the Apostle, two and a half miles away, where he celebrated the sesquicentennial Mass.

The Mass June 28 was concelebrated by 19 priests, including Auxiliary Bishop Patrick V. Ahern, retired as vicar of development and one-time vicar of Staten Island; Msgr. Joseph C. Ansaldi, the present vicar; Msgr. Peter G. Finn, pastor.

During his homily, the cardinal scanned a copy of the parish bulletin which he called "a very, very dynamic sign of the life of this parish." He said it lists an "extraordinary number of spiritual events, social events, a means of bringing the people together."

"All these organizations are wonderful contributions to the life of the parish, to the life of the entire surrounding society. But it is what happens here on this altar and among you in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass--this is what creates community," he said. "This could not have become a parish in the true sense of the word without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

"This is truly a living parish," he said. "It is so important that what you leave to those who will follow you is at least equal to what you have received from those who went before."

St. Joseph's was founded on July 2, 1848, by Father Mark Murphy, pastor of St. Peter's Church, when he celebrated Mass for 58 Catholics in a house on Rossville Avenue as a mission of St. Peter's. In 1851, a small chapel dedicated to St. Joseph was completed on Poplar Avenue. When Father Francis DeCaro, O.F.M., was appointed as first pastor in 1855, St. Joseph's became an official parish--the third oldest of Staten Island's 36 parishes after St. Peter's and St. Mary's.

St. Joseph's became the oldest Catholic church on Staten Island when a cornerstone was laid in 1900 to replace the original St. Peter's which had been destroyed by fire.

The stone Church of St. Thomas the Apostle was constructed on Amboy Road in the Pleasant Plains section in 1938 and opened with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In 1959, the seat of the parish was transferred to St. Thomas, because more Catholics lived in its area.

Guiding the parish over the years have been 17 pastors. Msgr. Peter G. Finn arrived in 1989 and presided over the construction of the new church, an award-winning building that houses many original works of art.

In the 1960s, the proposed pathway of the West Shore Expressway slashed through the Rossville neighborhood. To make way for the road, many homes were sacrificed, most of them occupied by Catholic families. The parish registry dwindled to 700.

But the expressway's opening in 1976 brought easier access for developers and home buyers. Acres of new houses grew over the next two decades. The parish registry has since surged to 3,400 families, and the building boom continues. The parish school has an enrollment of 346 and the religious education program, directed by Sister Maria Goretti, F.H.M., serves more than 1,000 public school children. In 1989, Theresa Simmonds became the first lay principal of the parish school, which had been staffed by the Marianites of the Holy Cross since its founding in 1966. In 1990, an addition was dedicated as the Marianite Early Childhood Center.

The 12 square miles of the parish--the borough's largest geographically--include the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin at Mount Loretto, the novitiate of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary and Camp St. Edward, and Resurrection Cemetery, where Dorothy Day is buried.

Though the original parishioners were mainly of Irish descent, the parish today reflects a wide range of ethnic heritages. Special events still mark St. Patrick's Day, while the newer traditions include a Mass in Italian on St. Joseph's Day. Filipino-Americans make up a parish Charismatic prayer group and also a choir that sings on Sundays at the noon Mass in St. Joseph's Church. They were responsible for the shrine to Our Lady of the Baranguay in the bell tower outside the new St. Thomas Church.

Msgr. Finn told CNY the parish is totally energized by the influx of new people into the area. Despite the extensive reach of the parish boundaries, he said, the members maintain a closeness.

He said the closeness is fostered by the many parish organizations, and social and religious activities. They include a Nativity scene with live animals during the Christmas season and a Palm Sunday procession from St. Joseph's to St. Thomas every year.

Msgr. Finn is assisted by a trio of parochial vicars: Fathers Richard Veras, Evangelio R. Suaybaguio and Francisco H. Lanzaderas. Serving as weekend assistants are Father John Gerhard, S.J., chaplain at St. Joseph Hill Academy, and Father Lydio Tomasi, C.S., executive director of the Center for Migration Studies at St. Charles Seminary on Staten Island.

An arson fire devastated St. Thomas Church early on Palm Sunday, March 20, 1983, but the 8 a.m. Mass was celebrated on schedule--in the school auditorium. Parishioner Emily Smit recalled, "There wasn't a dry eye the entire Mass." That very day, parishioners began dreaming of a restored or new St. Thomas Church.

Msgr. Finn accepted the challenge and the new Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, seating 710 and costing $3.2 million, opened, debt-free, at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in 1995.

Patricia Cameron, sexton at St. Thomas, said, "People come from all over and they're in awe of the whole building inside and outside." A native of Ireland, she said her favorite feature is the Shrine of St. Joseph, which contains relics of more than 70 saints, including St. Patrick and St. Brigid.

Raymond J. Coles has headed the fund-raising effort for St. Thomas and is involved in the fund-raising campaign for the restoration of St. Joseph's.

"The people here really have made the building of the new church and the restoration of the old church a dream come true," he told CNY. "It gives the whole parish a vibrancy, a life--they see something happening."

Larry Jochim, who attends Mass at St. Joseph's, said the restored 150-year-old church "looks beautiful--brand new." Recent additions include a granite tile floor, air conditioning, brighter lighting, mahogany entrance doors, five stained-glass windows, vinyl siding and a carillon.

"It's good for another 150 years," he said.

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