'An Institution'

Blessed Sacrament marks 150 years as a New Rochelle landmark

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Catholics in New Rochelle know Blessed Sacrament Church as the historic downtown parish and a place where confessions are scheduled twice each day.

Everyone else in New Rochelle--at least those in the Main Street area--knows Blessed Sacrament as the church with the tower bell that peals every day at noon and 6 p.m.

"This parish is more than a landmark, it's an institution," in the words of the pastor, Msgr. William J. Bradley.

"People come from everywhere to go to confession because they know we have it every day," he said.

And, he added, the church "has the only real live tower bell in a Westchester Catholic parish."

Blessed Sacrament, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, was founded in 1848 and became the mother church of all the parishes along the shore of the Long Island Sound from the Bronx city line to Stamford, Conn.

It remains a busy hub with six Masses scheduled each weekend and 100 weddings a year. Three couples were wed at the church the weekend of Oct. 17-18, and that's not unusual, Msgr. Bradley noted.

People like to have weddings there, he said, explaining, "It's a beautiful church."

There also are 140 funerals each year, and not all of them are for current parishioners. "People move out of New Rochelle, but they might have expressed to their families, 'I'd really like to be buried out of Blessed Sacrament.' So they come back here," he said.

Blessed Sacrament is situated one block east of Main Street, which was for years the major shopping and entertainment district of New Rochelle and its environs. No more.

The large department stores left years ago, restaurants and movie theaters followed, and the smaller shops could no longer survive. These days, except for a handful of small discount stores, Main Street is a shuttered strip.

It's surprising, then, to walk the few steps to Blessed Sacrament on Centre Avenue and find that it stands at the edge of a tidy and attractive neighborhood of oneand two-family homes and medium-size apartment buildings in a quiet, leafy setting.

In many respects--given its perch between deserted Main Street on one side and the residential area on the other--Blessed Sacrament is the most active going concern in an area that has seen more vibrant days.

The parish has 2,000 families registered, serves four local nursing homes and operates an elementary school with 250 students, a high school with 277 girls and boys and a religious education program with more than 600 public school children enrolled.

Its buildings and fields occupy practically an entire square block along Shea Place (named for a former pastor, Msgr. Francis C. Shea), Centre Avenue and Maple Street. Located there are the church, a building at 15 Shea Place that houses the rectory and parish offices, a house for the Christian Brothers who staff the high school and a large four-story elementary school.

There's a ball field on the plot, as well as a lawn beside the church with a grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Across Shea Place, the parish owns another large parcel of land, the attractive campus of Blessed Sacrament-St. Gabriel High School.

A few miles away, near the New Rochelle-Pelham border, the parish has maintained Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, one of the oldest burial grounds in Westchester, since 1886.

Three parochial vicars serve the parish: Fathers Charles Imokhai, Salagunla Xavier Amul and Savarimuthu Lourdusamy, all externs.

"We've been blessed with very good priests over the years," said Arthur Falch, president of the parish council and a parishioner for 28 years.

The parish is also served by three permanent deacons: Deacons Francis B. Orlando, Charles L. Wendelken and Charles A. Rizzo, a physician who often serves at Cardinal O'Connor's 10:15 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

There are Miraculous Medal and St. Jude novenas weekly, a Rosary group, a Bible study group and holy hours with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on first Fridays. There is also a children's choir and a Marian chorale.

Ethnically, the parish is mixed. There are many Italianand Irish-Americans who have been stalwarts for generations, joined lately by immigrants that include Indians, Filipinos and other Asians and newcomers from Latin America.

"You name it, we've got it," Msgr. Bradley said. "It's as diverse as you can imagine."

A good number of senior citizens are in the parish, given the presence of three large residential complexes for the elderly in the neighborhood.

"They're big supporters of the parish," said Falch. "They help in the school and they help financially."

"Some people say that senior citizens can drain a parish," he observed. "But not here. They're probably our biggest financial contributors."

Another asset to the parish, said longtime parishioner Noreen Orlando, are its children. Mrs. Orlando, a lector, Eucharistic minister and the wife of Deacon Orlando, teaches sixthand seventh-graders in the religious education program.

"What we try to do is reach out to people through the School of Religion," she said, of the religious education program directed by Judith Anastasio.

Often, said Mrs. Orlando, parents who have drifted away from the Church themselves will still send their children for instruction and see that they receive the sacraments.

The parish sees that as an opportunity, she said. "We encourage the children to encourage their parents," she explained. "It's one of the ways we try to get the parents interested in religion again--through the children, through the sacraments."

Blessed Sacrament School has made impressive gains over the last four years. It has grown from 184 pre-K through eighth-grade students to its current enrollment of 227.

The principal, Joan Woods, credits the archdiocesan school marketing program for the increase, noting that a good number of youngsters from neighboring communities are now enrolled. And while the school is as ethnically mixed as the parish, Italian and Italian-American children represent the largest group--something that has not gone unnoticed by the Italian Consulate in Manhattan.

Starting in the current school year, the consulate helped arrange for a teacher of the Italian language to work in the school twice a week in grades one through six.

"They're interested in improving their language and their culture," she explained.

The high school, whose principal is Brother Peter Zawot, C.F.C., has a faculty that includes three Christian Brothers, five Sisters of Charity and one Dominican Sister of Hope in addition to its lay teachers.

Founded as Blessed Sacrament High School for boys, it became coeducational in 1985 after merging with another New Rochelle Catholic high school, St. Gabriel's.

Asked what he sees as the school's strengths, Brother Zawot said, "Small classes, structured in such a way that the kids can mix and match. If their strength is math, they can get into a class that's right for their ability."

Another strength, he said, is the small size. "It's a family atmosphere, a home away from home for some of the kids," he said.

Cardinal O'Connor celebrated the anniversary Mass at Blessed Sacrament Sunday, Oct. 25.

The roots of the parish go back to 1845, when Irish-born Father Matthew Higgins, assigned to St. Raymond's parish in the Bronx, appealed to Archbishop John J. Hughes to build a church in New Rochelle, which was on his mission circuit.

The bishop bought land on Drake Avenue in the heart of the largest Irish settlement in town, and the church built in 1848 was named St. Matthew's in honor of Father Higgins.

In 1849, the parish received its first resident pastor, Father Edward J. O'Reilly. Father Thomas McLoughlin, who became pastor in 1853, opened St. Matthew's Academy in 1866, the first Catholic school in New Rochelle, which was staffed by the Sisters of Charity.

He also built a small frame church on Centre Avenue which was dedicated in 1874 as Blessed Sacrament. The school was closed the following year, however, because of financial problems.

Five years later, a new school was built next to the Centre Avenue church with bricks parishioners carried from the dismantled St. Matthew's Church on Drake Avenue. In 1886, Father McLoughlin opened the cemetery on an 18-acre estate he acquired on Highland Avenue.

A fire caused by lightning destroyed the church in 1890, and the present stone, Gothic-style structure was built and dedicated in 1897. In 1914, the religious education program was established when the Ursuline nuns of the College of New Rochelle agreed to instruct the parish children who were attending public schools. The Ursulines taught in Blessed Sacrament School until three years ago. A new building was erected in 1923.

Father McLoughlin was pastor until 1902 when, at age 76, he was stricken at the foot of the altar while saying Mass and died shortly thereafter. He was buried beside the church in the spot where the old church bell had fallen during the 1890 fire.

He was succeeded by his nephew, Father Thomas P. McLoughlin, who became known to parishioners as "Young Father Tom."

Father Matthew Delaney, pastor from 1940 to 1947, established a parish high school for boys, which the Congregation of Christian Brothers have served from the beginning. Msgr. Francis C. Shea, pastor from 1947 to 1969, acquired a large building on Beauchamp Place, which became the current high school building when renovations were completed in 1963.

Msgr. Shea was one of the most popular clergymen in New Rochelle, known for seeking to spread the spirit of ecumenism and tolerance. On the 50th anniversary of his priesthood, Beauchamp Place was renamed Shea Place at the celebration. He died the following year and is buried near the grave of Father McLoughlin on the church grounds.

Msgr. Bradley, the 13th pastor, was appointed March 1, 1996. "There's a magic about this parish," he told CNY on a recent visit, "and it's lasted through all these years."

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