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.
The Mass schedule outside, however, said differently.
As 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.
I 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.
Beyond 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.
Despite the dimensions of the ceiling, no pillars blocked the view of parishioners.
“It used to be a movie theater. Loew’s, I think,” my friend explained.
At 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.
So 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.
But it wasn’t always like that around here.
The 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 Apostles.”
European 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.
St. 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.”
By 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.
In 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.
It’s 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
Father 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.
St. 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 meals.
“Mother 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.”
I 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 church.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.
St. Sebastian Church
39-63 57th Street
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.