People who have seen St. Denis Church in southwest Yonkers seem to remember one feature over all others: its bright and inviting red doors.
“For some reason, that stands out,” said the pastor, Father Edward P. O’Halloran.
Built in 1911, a year after the founding of the parish, St. Denis remains a bright spot in more ways than just the color of its doors in this, its centennial year. The parish was a beacon of spiritual and community life for the Irish Catholics that once were the majority in the Lowerre section, and it remains so for the international mix that’s there today.
“On Sundays, I feel like I’m in the United Nations,” Father O’Halloran quipped.
The parish population is half Latino now, he said, with Dominicans and Mexicans the largest group and the rest from “practically the entire Caribbean and South America.”
He said there is also a significant number of Filipinos and a smaller number from India, as well as older English-speakers who are mainly the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants.
Archbishop Dolan met many of the parishioners on his visit to the parish Oct. 9, the feast of St. Denis, to celebrate the 100th anniversary Mass. A reception followed.
St. Denis Church, at 470 Van Cortlandt Ave., borders Van Cortlandt Park at the Bronx city line. In one of the older sections of Yonkers, it covers a densely populated area of small apartment buildings and two- and three-family houses in an urban setting. However, the parish also takes in a small part of the Park Hill section, an area known for its large and gracious homes, where many prominent artists, entertainers and other well-known personalities have lived.
There are five weekend Masses, in English and in Spanish, with a total attendance of 500-525 people. Father Thomas Berg is parochial vicar.
A parish school, which opened in 1928 and was staffed at the time by the Sisters of Charity, closed in 2006 due to declining enrollment. It is now used for various parish functions, such as the reception held after the annual parish blood drive. An Alcoholics Anonymous group also meets there.
On Sundays, the religious education program, conducted in English and in Spanish for 120 children, is held in the school building on Sunday mornings under the direction of Father O’Halloran.
The parish also has a Cursillo group and a Spanish-language prayer group and youth group.
A special event each year is the Memorial Day observance, which began after World War II to honor those who died defending the country. The tradition, which attracts many former parishioners, includes a Mass and the placing of flags on crosses bearing the names of the fallen from World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and 9/11.
Like many city neighborhoods, the Lowerre section went through a tough period of high crime, unemployment and urban blight in the 1960s and 1970s as the post-World War II generation moved elsewhere, although stability has been returning.
Lowerre was a fast-growing Irish middle-class, residential community when St. Denis parish was established in 1910 in an unusual set of circumstances. Construction of the church was funded by Elizabeth and Denis Horgan, a childless Manhattan couple who had discussed with the archdiocese their desire to build a church.
Denis Horgan died in 1909, but his wife brought the project to fruition with a $50,000 donation, $5,000 of which was used to purchase the land and the rest for construction. The granite stone church, built in English Gothic style, was consecrated in 1912.
Mrs. Horgan stipulated in her agreement with the archdiocese that a crypt would be provided in the church for her parents and two of her sisters as well as for herself and her husband. She also wanted the church named for her husband’s namesake, St. Denis. Mr. Horgan’s remains were transferred to the crypt, in the lower church, and Mrs. Horgan was entombed there after her death in 1915.
“It’s an unusual situation,” Father O’Halloran, “but they were interested in helping the Church expand.”