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St. Sebastian’s Church in Woodside, N.Y., once a movie theater, now provides the sacraments to a mixed immigrant community.
BY The EditorsAngelo Stagnaro
When a friend drove me past St. Sebastian’s in the
Woodside section of Queens, N.Y., I didn’t recognize it as a church. It was
large, nondescript and boxlike — more like a brick warehouse than a church.
Mass schedule outside, however, said differently.
I stood there reading it, a very loud train rattled deafeningly above, part of
the New York City subway system, no more than 25 feet away from the building.
Trucks rumbled through a five-corner intersection. Hawkers and passers-by
seemed to be trying to out-shout one another.
stepped into a very large vestibule and was immediately struck by the change
from the street. The vestibule actually looked like a vestibule. The silence
was the other thing that hit me. Anyone who has been under an outdoor, elevated
subway train trestle knows that one can barely think let alone speak to anyone
when a train rattles by. And yet, as soon as the door was closed, silence
flowed over me like a gentle, comforting wave.
the vestibule, one is struck by the building’s dimensions and how beautifully
lit it is. The next obvious element that catches one’s attention is the opulent
ceiling, a single, enormous and ornate circle that stretches from one side to
the other. It’s not a decorative element one would normally associate with a
church, but rather, with a theater.
the dimensions of the ceiling, no pillars blocked the view of parishioners.
used to be a movie theater. Loew’s, I think,” my friend explained.
that admission, everything made sense. There are no stained-glass windows
because there are no windows, standard for a movie-theater space. The church’s
floor slopes forward so as to give the those in the back an unobstructed view.
too the quiet interior. A movie theater that couldn’t keep out the noise of a
New York City elevated train wouldn’t last long.
it wasn’t always like that around here.
earliest inhabitants of Queens County (on the western end of Long Island) were
the Maerack tribe of the Delaware Indians, who referred to Long Island as
“Seawanaka” or the “island of shells.” Though Giovanni da Verrazano arrived in
New York Harbor in 1524 and sighted Long Island, he did not explore it.
Instead, Estevan Gomez, a Portuguese navigator in the employ of the king of
Spain, entered New York Harbor and sighted Long Island on June 29, 1534, the
feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. In honor of the day, he named it “Island of the
colonization of Long Island only began with Henry Hudson in 1609. Colonists,
some of them Irish Catholics from Connecticut, began to settle in eastern Long
Island. When the Netherlands traded New Amsterdam to the English in 1664,
Queens was still a farming community. Queens County was established in 1683 and
was named for King Charles of England’s Catholic wife, Queen Catherine of
Braganza. When greater New York City was established in 1898, Bishop Charles
McDonnell, the second bishop of Brooklyn, established St. Sebastian’s, the
second of the Queens parishes he founded. Prior to that, Catholics who lived in
Woodside had no convenient church to attend. In fact, before 1822, they had to
take a ferry to St. Peter’s on Barclay Street or Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on
Mulberry Street in Manhattan.
Sebastian’s parish was founded in 1894, long before a proper church could be
built. The parish served 53 families, comprising 350 individuals, which
represented approximately half the population of Woodside at the time. Father
Gannon, the first pastor, wrote in his journal of the daunting task of creating
a parish from scratch: “At the commencement, the aspect of things was not very
bright. There was no building site, no church, no house, and, what was most
deplorable, no money. That God has blessed the work is evident from the fact
that, after months of toil, $11,400 has been collected, a building site has
been bought, and the new church is almost completed.”
1902, the parish had grown to more than 1,000. The number of Sunday school
children registered in the sacramental-preparation classes rose from 153 to
240. Between 1910 and 1930, St. Sebastian’s parish roll quadrupled.
1937, the parish needed to expand its Mass schedule to accommodate a deluge of
immigrants. The school had 877 students taught by 19 sisters. The Catholic War
Veterans was founded nationally in 1935 by Msgr. Edward Higgins of Astoria,
Queens. St. Sebastian’s Post #870 was founded on July 8, 1946, by Father
Clement Walsh, who served as a military chaplain in World War II. Among its
functions, the group sponsored well-attended lectures throughout Queens on the
evils of communism. As a testament to the parish’s patriotism, immediately
across from the church is Doughboy Park with memorials dedicated to the 119
parishioners who fought in World War I, six of whom died. A monument to those
who died during World War I, World War II and the Korean War stands nearby.
Next to it is the Vietnam War Memorial, which reminds visitors that Woodside
contributed the most soldiers of any postal zone in America. The neighborhood’s
war dead are still honored every Memorial Day.
perhaps especially fitting that near these monuments is a church in honor of
St. Sebastian, a martyr who was in the Roman army. His feast day is Jan. 20.
A Door Opens
Edward Moran had plans to build a larger church and an extension on the school
to accommodate the burgeoning population, but the costs were prohibitive. But,
as all Christians are assured, once knocked upon, the door will certainly be
opened. On Feb. 1, 1952, a federal antitrust suit against several Hollywood
filmmakers required them to divest themselves of theater ownership, thus making
the 25-year-old Loew’s Woodside theater immediately across from the parish’s elementary
school available for purchase. In March 1952, in what surely raised a few
eyebrows at the time, Father Moran purchased the theater for $250,000. An
additional $422,000 was raised for renovations. These figures represented half
the price it would take to build a church from scratch. In addition, several
adjacent store fronts were acquired in order to build a chapel. The church was
dedicated on Oct. 23, 1955, with Bishop Thomas Molloy presiding. The theater’s
infrastructure allowed St. Sebastian’s to become the first air-conditioned church
in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Sebastian has many great claims to fame, but the most important is that Mother
Teresa sojourned here in 1978. Longtime residents recall the tiny nun dressed
in white in the street in front of the church begging for money to pay for her
Teresa’s presence here at St. Sebastian’s blessed this parish and its
parishioners forever,” said Father Michael Hardiman, St. Sebastian’s pastor.
“It is an honor for all of New York City.”
was given a tour of the refectory, chapel and guest rooms in the parish’s
convent, where Mother Teresa stayed. It was an overwhelming experience to be in
the saint’s footsteps, even if we were separated by several decades. When I
left the convent, I went back to Our Lady of Woodside Chapel off to the side of
St. Sebastian’s and prayed before the Blessed Sacrament. It was an
unforgettable experience to visit St. Sebastian’s if for nothing else but to
witness Catholicism’s triumph over secularism. I love movies as much as the
next person, but it was very satisfying to note that the faith-filled people of
Woodside preferred to have one less theater so that they could have one more
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.
St. Sebastian Church
Phone: (718) 429-4442
Planning Your Visit
Sunday Masses at St.
Sebastian’s are on Saturday at 5 and 6pm in Spanish and Sunday at 8, 9 and 10:30am (with interpretation for the
deaf), as well as noon (in Spanish) and 1:15 and 6pm. Weekday Masses are held
in Our Lady of Woodside Chapel Monday-Saturday at 9am and noon. On Saturday,
the noon Mass is in Spanish.
The nearest subway stop is
the 61st Street Station in Woodside on the No. 7 line.