First Place Award for General Excellence, Catholic Press Association, 2013-2016

St. Raymond Brings Rich History to Diverse Bronx Neighborhood
By DAN PIETRAFESA
MARIA R. BASTONE
175 YEARS AND COUNTING—The majestic St. Raymond’s Church, opened in 1898, is the third church building in the history of the 175-year-old parish known as the Mother Church of the Bronx. Three schools and the only Catholic cemetery in the Bronx are part of the parish.

St. Raymond is a parish rich in history that has persevered through changes to the parish and to the cultural makeup of its Bronx neighborhood over 175 years.

“We have people from different cultures and groups. We all get along so well, learn from one another and help one another. It’s a very cheerful and happy place. It’s a very spiritual place,” Ellen McDonough, a parishioner for 57 years, told CNY.

“It’s a beautiful church. It’s like a little cathedral, and our pastors and parish staff have always taken good care of it.”

Cardinal Dolan celebrated Mass for about 650 people at St. Raymond Church to mark the 175th anniversary Sept. 16.

The Mass started the anniversary celebration over nine days that included a Eucharistic procession through Parkchester with more than 200 people. It also included prayer and adoration, open houses at the parish’s three schools and a gala at Marina del Rey in the Bronx.

“The cardinal was his jubilant self,” said Father James Cruz, pastor of St. Raymond for the past year and a graduate of St. Raymond High School for Boys. “We had a packed church. They were jubilant and excited.

“We have a lot of good people here. What makes any parish great is the people. To them, this is home, and this is where they want to be.”

St. Raymond has 2,000 parish families and averages 1,500 people at its weekend Masses. The parish has three schools with 900 students enrolled at St. Raymond’s Elementary School, 400 at St. Raymond’s Academy for Girls and 600 at St. Raymond’s High School for Boys. It also has a parish cemetery, the only Catholic cemetery in the Bronx, averaging 4,000 burials per year.

The parish, with about 250 children in its religious education program, offers three daily Masses on weekdays and two Saturday Masses. There are five Masses serving as Sunday Masses, including one on Saturday and one celebrated in Spanish each Sunday. Spanish-speaking Masses are also offered on Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Joining Father Cruz on the clergy staff are Father Raphael Boansi, Father Elvin Rivera, Father Patrick Agbeko, Father Lorenzo Laboy and Deacon Fernando Vazquez.

Mary Anne McNally, business manager for the parish since 2006 and a parishioner for more than 30 years, has taught religious education for 16 years and is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. She is also in her second year as chairwoman of the parish council.

“For me, it’s the people,” said Ms. McNally, the mother of three graduates of the St. Raymond schools. “The people are welcoming. It’s a sense of community and family. We’ve been blessed with many wonderful people and priests.”

St. Raymond Church dates back to 1842 with an old barn being converted into a temporary church in Westchester Village, a section of Westchester County that later become part of the Bronx. St. Raymond was the first church in what would become the Bronx, serving as the Mother Church and starting 13 mission churches through the years. Father Felix Villanis was appointed the parish’s first pastor.

A new church was dedicated Aug. 31, 1845, the feast of St. Raymond Nonnatus, as the area grew with an influx of Irish and German immigrants. With the parish’s numbers growing, the current church was constructed with the first Mass being celebrated there in 1898, and Italian immigrants soon came to the parish.

St. Raymond Elementary School opened in 1868, staffed by two Sisters of Charity. A new elementary school was dedicated in 1909, and the current elementary school was opened in 1951 as a result of the growing number of students. St. Raymond Academy for Girls was established in 1960, and the parish added St. Raymond High School for Boys in 1962.

The 1970s brought the arrival of Hispanics and African-Americans to St. Raymond. In the 1990s, the parish neighborhood had an influx of West Africans, especially from Nigeria and Ghana.

The parish continues to thrive in its 175th anniversary year. Father Cruz said the parish is bringing back the Knights of Columbus, with 45 men already signed up, and the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.

The parish also is starting a youth ministry for middle school students, high school students and young adults. Leaders of the youth group spoke at recent Sunday Masses in hopes of drawing interest.

“It’s a church on the move, and it continues growing. It’ll grow through the grace of God,” Father Cruz said.

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