'They Love This Parish'

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By MARY ANN POUST

It's all about the people in St. Anthony's parish on Commonwealth Avenue, the Bronx, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

And the parishioners, whether longtime residents of the Van Nest area parish or relative newcomers, came through—organizing social events, Masses and fund-raisers to polish up the parish as it starts its next century.

"What I like best about this parish is the everyday interaction with the people," said Father Joseph J. Kelly, who's serving as administrator after completing 12 years leading the parish as its pastor.

"They're very comfortable with the church, and they count on it," he said. "They make this church a center for their families, their education and their spiritual growth."

They also support it. Led by longtime Italian and Irish families, whose numbers have greatly dwindled in the parish over the years, St. Anthony's was able to surpass its $260,000 goal during the recent archdiocesan Bicentennial Campaign and ended up raising $320,000.

"They really came through for us," Father Kelly said. "They were so generous. They love this parish."

The money was used to renovate and spruce up the church, including a new boiler and an upgraded electrical system, to allow it to shine during its centennial—a yearlong celebration that kicked off in 2007 at an opening Mass by a son of the parish, Auxiliary Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan, vicar general of the archdiocese.

Cardinal Egan congratulated the parish at a centennial Mass he celebrated there June 1, to climax the anniversary year.

"This is an exceptional community of faith," he said, "with devoted clergy, an outstanding school, a much-admired catechetical program and deep commitment to those in need, especially new arrivals here in New York."

St. Anthony's was founded shortly after the IRT elevated train line was extending its reach into a part of the Bronx in which large landowners were starting to subdivide their acreage in anticipation of a building boom.

With St. Raymond's long established in the area and Our Lady of Solace founded in 1903, attention turned to the newly developing, and largely Italian, neighborhoods of Versailles Park and west Van Nest. An Italian-born priest, Father Henry DeVivo, was sent to the area to begin ministering to the people in June 1908, and five months later established St. Anthony's as an Italian national parish.

A church and rectory were built on land that he purchased on Commonwealth Avenue and Mansion Street, and the parish continued to grow under the leadership of a series of Italian pastors.

A school opened in 1931, staffed by the Sisters of Charity, at a time when a new development of apartment houses opened on former farmland. The builder, John Stratton O'Leary, named them Stratton Flats after his mother, and the tenants—new parishioners at St. Anthony's—were primarily Irish.

An expansion of the rectory and a convent followed the opening of the school. The school auditorium, where Masses were held to accommodate the expanding congregation, was re-fitted in the late 1930s to become the permanent church and the old building was later torn down.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the building of a school annex and a new rectory and new convent. Around the same time, the parish lost its status as a national parish, reflecting the evolution of the neighborhood to Italian- and Irish-American. Puerto Ricans, who began settling in the Bronx in the late 1940s, would follow.

Aggressive development continued in the Bronx as well, with the massive Parkchester housing development rising to the east of the parish and the Cross Bronx Expressway slicing through its center.

Today, the densely built working-class community of small apartment buildings and two- and three-family homes is mainly Hispanic, with Mexicans the largest and most recent group.

The parish now has three weekend Masses, two in English and one in Spanish, with a total attendance of about 900. Deacon Frankie Vasquez and parish secretary Maribel Gomez assist Father Kelly at the parish; Father John Piderit, S.J., the former president of Loyola University in Chicago who runs an after-school program in the parish, is in residence.

The parish school, under the direction of principal Frances Acosta, has 215 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and a staff of lay teachers and administrators; a religious education program coordinated by Olga Torres has 140 students enrolled.

The archdiocese also operates the St. Anthony's Head Start program on the parish property. Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a Bronx-based group that involves young people in civic activism, has programs in St. Anthony's.

The parish also runs a soup kitchen, and Catholic Charities operates a center for immigration and housing services.

"There's a lot of activity," Father Kelly said. "This is a diverse parish, but unity is important to them. It's a good theme for this parish."

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