Feature Story

'Parish of Life'

Most Holy Trinity in Mamaroneck marks 125th year 'just doing what God wants'

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Emily Cannistraci was cleaning at home one day when the doorbell rang. It was Father Joseph F. Irwin, pastor of Most Holy Trinity, her parish in Mamaroneck. He had with him a shy young woman who was pregnant and in need of help.

"Father asked if I could please take her shopping for clothes for the baby and said that Holy Trinity would pay the expenses," Mrs. Cannistraci recalled. "I was so honored that he would ask me to help."

"It's a pro-life parish, in all aspects--a parish of life," she said.

In an area that is represented in Washington and Albany by pro-abortion politicians, Most Holy Trinity tries to provide a voice for life--and practical help. Hostility to that voice has taken the form of vandalism of pro-life signs in front of the church.

Word has gotten around that Holy Trinity is a place where mothers in crisis can turn for help, and many knock on Father Irwin's door. When they do, they walk past a small stone marker, sponsored by the Mamaroneck Knights of Columbus Council 2247, that reads, "In loving memory of the unborn, always in our prayers." On the parish bulletin are telephone numbers for crisis pregnancy centers and postabortion counseling.

"I've found that if you tell the parishioners specifically what the need is, without using names, they respond beautifully," Father Irwin told CNY. "Some little ones are alive today because of our outreach."

"Holy Trinity is a good example" to its neighbors, said Thomas J. McCarrick, a parishioner for 23 years. "The pastor is a strong, unyielding leader on moral issues, and many people are inspired by his homilies. He's strengthened the spiritual and moral fiber of the parish."

But as important as the pro-life cause is to Father Irwin, who has been arrested for blocking abortion clinic entrances, he said the most important thing for a church to do is "bring people together to worship God."

"Everything else is secondary and flows from that," he said.

It is what Holy Trinity has been doing for 125 years, and Cardinal O'Connor recognized that when he celebrated the anniversary Mass there on Trinity Sunday, May 30. Father Irwin concelebrated, along with Father William A. Rooney, the parochial vicar; Father Gabriel Muteru, an extern from Kenya, and Father James Villa, O.F.M., a weekend assistant who leads a bimonthly Bible study group.

The church, an attractive stone, French Gothic-style structure on busy East Boston Post Road, is open all day. "People are always stopping in--strangers and parishioners," Father Irwin said. The property is a stone's throw from Long Island Sound.

The parish strives to bring people into the fold--those who have left it and those who are not yet Catholic. A recent evangelization outreach sent a team out to 300 homes, taking a parish census and inviting people to church.

Father Irwin said he is trying to get Holy Trinity to be the "first parish in America where people don't leave before the end of Mass." He asks parishioners to "respect the integrity of the Mass," and they are responding positively.

For Mrs. Cannistraci, it's no problem. "We get nourished with the word of God here," she said. "Our priests preach the truth of Christ. The spirit is alive in this church. We're bonded by Jesus, not by what we do for a living or where we come from."

The parish history goes back to St. Thomas Church, built in 1867 as a mission of Blessed Sacrament parish in New Rochelle. In 1874, the mission became a parish, and when the present church was built in 1885, it was renamed Most Holy Trinity.

The first pastor was Father Christopher A. Farrell, and others have included Bishop Joseph P. Donahue, 1913 to 1924, who later was vicar general of the archdiocese, and Father Thomas B. Kelly, 1942 to 1952, who had been confessor to Rose Hawthorne, founder of the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer. Father Francis P. Duffy, chaplain of the 69th Regiment in World War I, served there in the early part of the century.

Recent pastors include Msgr. Thomas J. Darby, 1969 to 1976, and Msgr. John J. Mulroy, 1976 to 1989.

Though the school, which was run by the Sisters of Charity of New York with help from the Franciscan Sisters of Hastings, closed in 1987, the parish teaches about 200 firstthrough eighth-graders in its religious education program, directed by Assunta Pugliese.

"It's a back-to-basics program: prayer, Mass, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, morality," Father Irwin said. "If every child in the program and his or her parents were to worship here each Sunday, everything else would flow from that."

The four weekend Masses are attended by an average of 550 persons, the two weekday Masses by about 80. Attendance has increased, Father Irwin said, since the start of regular Eucharistic adoration in the early 1990s. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed all day each Friday and all night on First Fridays.

"It's been a blessing on the parish," said McCarrick, who asked Father Irwin if he could organize the Nocturnal Adoration Society. Father Irwin agreed. Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament has been dear to his heart since an encounter with Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1977.

"Spend more time before the Blessed Sacrament," she told him after a meeting with Cardinal Terence Cooke.

When he was appointed to Mamaroneck in 1989, Father Irwin brought the tabernacle back into the main church from a Eucharistic chapel. A prayer group that has met every Monday evening for 10 years moved its meetings from the auditorium to the church to be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

"We have Scripture sharing, reflections, personal witnesses of how the Lord works in our lives," said Dolores Agins, one of about 60 people who attend the Monday evening meetings. "It's very edifying. The number of people who come shows the level of commitment people have to the Church, to the parish, to prayer and to each other."

Other events are opportunities for witness to the faith. The annual Corpus Christi procession begins and ends at the church, stopping at the homes of three parishioners where altars are set up for Benediction. Many parishioners also take part in the Life Chain at the Caldor Shopping Center in Port Chester.

The parish dedicates 10 percent of its collections to the poor, and collects food for the needy. "As people come to us we try to discern the needs," the pastor said. "Sometimes they're touched in such a way that they desire to become part of this community."

After last year's devastating hurricanes in Latin America, parishioners raised $11,000 for relief efforts.

The parish sponsors St. Rita's Free Medical Clinic each Friday in the old school. Father Irwin describes it as an "extension of our pro-life work, to advance the sanctity of life, both born and unborn." The clinic began in 1992 when Dr. Kevin Maloney, new in town, approached Father Irwin with the idea.

Dr. Maloney, a family practitioner, and volunteer nurses and nurse practitioners provide physical exams, vaccinations, blood work, EKGs and tests for vision, hearing and blood pressure. The clinic serves 25 to 50 adults and children a week, most of them immigrants from Mexico, Peru and Guatemala without insurance.

Ileana Dunn, a parishioner whose parents emigrated from Colombia, serves as an interpreter. "There's nothing worse than not feeling well and not being able to explain it to the doctor," she said.

Mrs. Dunn and her husband, John, remember the parish when they moved in 22 years ago as a place without many young couples with children. "Now sometimes you can hardly hear the priest because of the kids," she said. "Father Irwin welcomes people and is open to our ideas. As long as they're in the spirit of the Lord, he gives us full rein."

"There's a wonderful spirit here," said Giacinta Hughes, a parishioner for 41 years. "People have a great way of keeping track of each other's families. We're very sincere to each other. Some of us are well-to-do, others not so much, but nobody tries to put on airs."

"There's nothing grandiose about the place," Father Irwin said. "We're just doing what God wants us to do."

Anniversary activities will continue with a dinner dance on Saturday, Sept. 25, 7 p.m., and Forty Hours Devotion preached by Redemptorist Fathers on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 8 and 9.

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