FOURTH IN A SERIES
Two years after the end of the Civil War, a young German-born priest, Father Albert A. Lings, arrived in Yonkers to serve as the assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Church, the sole Catholic parish in what was then a little village of some 8,000 people. He remained in Yonkers for the rest of his life, dying in the middle of World War I, when Yonkers had become a bustling industrial city of more than 80,000 people.
In his lifetime, Father Lings witnessed an amazing transformation in the Catholic community in Yonkers, from one parish in 1867 to 15 parishes in 1915. He was responsible for the establishment of many of them.
The spectacular increase in the population of Yonkers was due mainly to the enormous influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe seeking employment in the numerous smokestack-stack industries of the city. They turned Yonkers into a miniature Chicago or Pittsburgh. Many of these immigrants were Catholics whose numbers and diversity posed a daunting pastoral challenge to Msgr. Lings who became the de facto leader of the Catholic community in Yonkers long before he was officially appointed the dean of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties in 1896.
Lings made his own personal contribution to the expansion of Catholicism in Yonkers in 1871 when, at age 27, he established St. Joseph’s Church, the second Latin-rite Catholic parish in the city.
In 1891 three gentlemen with foreign accents approached Lings and told him that they had purchased property for a church for their ethnic community. They described themselves as “Austrians” because they were often mistaken for Czechs, Hungarians or Poles. In fact, they were Slovaks, the first Slovaks Lings had ever met. Lings was sympathetic to their request and obtained permission from Archbishop Michael Corrigan for the establishment of the Slovak parish of the Most Holy Trinity. Lings then spent the next 10 frustrating years searching for a satisfactory pastor for them.
In 1891 the Capuchin Friars expanded their monastery chapel in north Yonkers into the parish Church of the Sacred Heart. Since many of the friars were of German origin, their presence and that of Lings precluded the need for a German national parish in Yonkers, although some German-Americans tried unsuccessfully to persuade Msgr. Lings to establish a German national parish in the city.
In the 1890s, there was a major expansion in the size of the Polish community in Yonkers. As a result, Lings encouraged a popular young Polish-born pastor in the Bronx, Father Joseph Dworzak, to move to Yonkers in 1903 and take charge of St. Casimir’s Church. Dworzak became a leading figure in the Yonkers Polish community until his death in 1951.
The biggest pastoral challenge that Msgr. Lings faced was accommodating the so-called “Greek Catholics” in Yonkers. They were not ethnic Greeks at all, but Byzantine-rite Catholics from the eastern provinces of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their forebears were Russian Orthodox Christians who had reunited with the Catholic Church and acknowledged the authority of the pope several centuries earlier.
The architecture of their churches and their liturgy were indistinguishable from those of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. They also retained their ancient tradition of both a celibate and married clergy, which caused major problems when their bishops attempted to send priests to America to minister to these Byzantine-rite Catholics in cities like Yonkers.
To complicate the situation further for Lings, there were two rival Byzantine-rite Catholic communities in Yonkers: the Ruthenians and the Ukrainians. Their mutual antipathy was due largely to old-world political differences that were incomprehensible to anyone not eager to delve into the opaque ethnic complexity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In 1899, Msgr. Lings took the bull by the horns and decided to make a 4,445-mile journey to visit the homelands of these recent immigrants to Yonkers. The highlight of his journey was the enthusiastic reception he received from the clergy in the city of Lemberg (present-day Lviv), then and now, the spiritual capital of Ukrainian Catholicism.
Lings was a person open to wider perspectives. He returned from Lviv with an enhanced appreciation of the merits of a married clergy as practiced by Byzantine-rite Catholics. From his experience in Yonkers, he had already assured Archbishop Corrigan, “It is certain that married priests have shown themselves as effective in church work as unmarried ones.”
In the 1880s, when the new Croton aqueduct was under construction in Yonkers, either Lings or his assistant celebrated Mass every Sunday in the construction camps of the workers. He explained to the archbishop’s secretary, “It is necessary to go there. These men are almost all Catholic, who as a rule cannot go to church on account of bad clothes, and in fact they are mostly tramps.”
Lings’ most satisfying moment in Yonkers may have occurred on May 17, 1891, when a huge crowd descended on the city for the blessing of the cornerstone of the new Dunwoodie seminary. Lings’ archrival, the pastor of St. Mary’s, arrived at the seminary grounds in the first carriage seated next to the mayor. Lings upstaged him by arriving on horseback at the head of two brass bands.