Roaring '20s

Cluster of East Bronx parishes reaching 75th anniversary together


It was a banner year for parish "diamond jubilees" in the eastern Bronx last year, with three of them marking 75th anniversaries: Blessed Sacrament, St. Frances de Chantal and St. Theresa of the Infant Jesus.

The three, established by Cardinal Patrick Hayes in 1927, are among 10 parishes that he instituted in the 1920s in what is now the East Bronx Vicariate - an area that includes the neighborhoods of Throgs Neck, Pelham Bay, Morris Park, Parkchester, Castle Hill and Soundview.

This year, another of the 1920s East Bronx parishes marks 75 years: St. Francis Xavier, founded in 1928 in Van Nest-Morris Park. And in 2004, the last of the group - St. Clare of Assisi, established in 1929 in Morris Park - will have its turn to celebrate.

The other parishes founded in the 1920s are Holy Cross, 1921; Our Lady of the Assumption, 1923; St. Benedict's, 1923; St. Dominic's, 1924, and Santa Maria, 1926.

With a total of 17 parishes currently in the vicariate, the 10 parishes from the 1920s make up the bulk of the parishes serving Catholics there today.

Built to accommodate a large influx of Italian-American families and a smaller number of Irish in a then-sparsely developed part of the city, those parishes were as much a part of the area's roots as were the newcomers who erected the tidy one- and two-family homes that still predominate.

Just as notable, current parishioners in many of the churches, particularly in the northern section of the vicariate, are descendants of the founding families. They send their children to the same Catholic schools they went to themselves, they help organize the feast day celebrations that their parents and grandparents started and they've kept their parishes woven into their daily lives.

"We have children in the school whose grandparents and whose parents went to the school," said Msgr. Leslie J. Ivers, pastor of St. Frances de Chantal in Throgs Neck.

"It's not uncommon for two people getting married, who grew up in the area and live in the area, to continue to live in the area after getting married," he said.

"A lot of people spend their entire lives in the Throgs Neck area. They look for a house somewhere in the community. It's the third generation now."

That scenario had its beginnings at the end of World War I, when the booming '20s economy and the desire of early-century immigrants for better living conditions caused a huge population shift in the New York area away from the inner city.

The population of the Bronx - whose northern and eastern regions were small-town, even rural, in character - nearly doubled in the period between the two world wars, going from 732,016 in 1920 to 1.39 million in 1940.

At the start of that period, land in the eastern Bronx was so open that working farms were not an unusual sight. The large tracts enabled several of the 1920s parishes to organize as faith communities by erecting large tents for Masses and other events.

Many remained in temporary quarters for decades, building schools first with the intent to erect a church soon after. The schools went up, but church-building plans wound up on hold for long periods because of the Depression of the 1930s followed by the outbreak of World War II.

"That's the way it was for a lot of them, and it got to be the 1950s before they were able to start building the churches," said Msgr. Edmund J. Whelan, pastor of St. Benedict's, where services were held in World War I-vintage Quonset huts until the church was completed in 1960.

Parishioners of the early St. Frances de Chantal were among those who gathered in a tent. It was set up at Meagher and Lawton avenues where worship services were held until a church building was opened at the site in 1930. A school opened later that same year and was expanded in 1957.

The current church, dedicated in 1970, is a showcase of post-Vatican II design at Hollywood and Tremont avenues. It features a dramatic 54-foot high rooftop crucifix that serves as a beacon in the neighborhood and to motorists crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge.

There are now 2,500 families registered as parishioners and 800 children in the school.

In the southern part of the vicariate, Holy Cross parish, the first of the 1920s East Bronx parishes, held its first Masses in the basement of the casino at Kane's Clason Point Grove, a popular amusement park that thrived at the turn of the last century.

Founded at the request of Cardinal Hayes by Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province, Holy Cross - in the section now known as Soundview - was situated in a marshy and sparsely populated area which nevertheless seemed poised for growth.

From 92 original families when it started in 1921, the parish had grown to 450 by 1925. It still contained much vacant land, however, which was put to use after World War II when Quonset huts were erected to shelter returning veterans who could not find housing.

After that, the city built several large public housing projects on the tracts, bringing in thousands of new residents, many of them newly arrived Puerto Ricans - making Holy Cross one of the few parishes in the vicariate whose landscape and ethnic makeup changed greatly over the years.

Holy Cross today, under Father Aubrey McNeil, O.F.M., the pastor, is a largely Hispanic parish of some 2,400 families, with 540 children in the school. The church at 600 Soundview Ave. was dedicated in 1968 after nearly a half century of making do in temporary worship space in its school buildings.

When this year's "anniversary parish," St. Francis Xavier, was started in July 1928, parishioners came together for Sunday Masses at the Woodmansten Inn - an internationally renowned supper club of the era at Pelham Parkway and Williamsbridge Road - until a wood frame church was constructed five months later.

A school started in the church auditorium in 1930 was moved to its current building in 1938. The church lasted 20 years, then was destroyed in a fire in 1948. A new church, constructed of sturdy brick, was dedicated in 1951 at 1703 Lurting Ave. at the corner of Van Nest Avenue.

Father Arthur T. Welton, the current pastor, oversees the parish of 713 families, with 469 children in the school.

Following are snapshot portraits, in chronological order, of the other parishes founded in the 1920s:

- Our Lady of the Assumption at 1634 Mahan Ave. in Pelham Bay, whose pastor is Father Donald M. Dwyer, vicar of the East Bronx, was founded in 1923. Its first Mass was celebrated under a circus tent at Hobart and Wilkinson avenues for 241 parishioners. Shortly afterward, religious services were moved to the banquet hall of the Chateau Pelham Restaurant on Westchester Avenue until a basement church opened in 1924. The upper church was dedicated in 1961 and serves 2,400 families. A school, which opened in 1928 and moved to its current building in 1954, has some 550 students.

- St. Benedict's, at 2969 Otis Ave. near Bruckner Boulevard in Throgs Neck, was established in 1923 by the Benedictine Monks of Collegeville, Minn., at the request of Cardinal Hayes. The most famous graduate of the parish school, dedicated in 1930, is Cardinal Terence Cooke, who led the archdiocese from 1968 until his death in 1983. The Benedictines administered the parish until 1976, when the archdiocese assumed responsibility. There are 3,000 families now registered, with 390 children in the school.

- St. Dominic's, at 1739 Unionport Road in the Van Nest section, was founded in 1924 as an Italian national parish, although about half of its parishioners are now Hispanic. The founding pastor, Father Dominic J. Fiorentino, was a young Italian immigrant who held the post for 55 years. In its first years, Masses were celebrated in a movie theater at Morris Park Avenue and White Plains Road. The current administrator is Father John M. Knapp. The parish has some 1,000 families, and the school, built in 1953, has 548 children enrolled.

- Santa Maria at 2352 St. Raymond Ave. in the Westchester Square section was established in 1926 when Father Edward Marcuzzi was assigned by Cardinal Hayes to start a parish for the growing Italian population. In 1995, administration of the parish was turned over to the Idente Missionaries. Father Fernando Real, M. Id., is the pastor. Today there are some 700 families in the parish and 230 children in the school, which opened in 1951.

- Blessed Sacrament, in the southern part of the vicariate at 1170 Beach Ave. near Gleason Ave., is sandwiched between the Parkchester and Soundview sections. The parish was established in 1927 for an Italian, Irish and German community. Sunday Masses were held in a nearby theater until the combination church and school building still in use opened in 1929. A school annex opened in 1956. At least 60 percent of parishioners today are Hispanic, although a good number of the European-Americans are still there along with a growing immigrant population. Msgr. James E. White is the administrator. The parish numbers some 1,200 families, with 520 students in the school.

- St. Theresa of the Infant Jesus in Pelham Bay, founded as an Italian national parish in 1927, is located on a section of Morris Park Avenue leading from the Hutchinson River Parkway to Westchester Avenue. The block was renamed St. Theresa Avenue in 1970 when a new church was dedicated to replace the original structure at Morris Park and Pilgrim avenues that was destroyed in a 1965 fire. Its first two pastors, Msgr. Bonaventure Filitti and Father Mario Ponsiglione, served a total of 47 years. The present pastor is Father Robert J. Grippo, who leads a parish of 2,700 families. The school, built in 1955, has about 580 children.

- St. Clare of Assisi was founded in 1929 in Morris Park-Van Nest after Cardinal Hayes asked the pastor of the new St. Dominic's to establish a second Italian national parish in the neighborhood. The parish of 1,800 families at 1918 Paulding Ave. at Rhinelander Avenue, now led by Father Richard M. Guarnieri, the pastor, retains a strong Italian character. Its school, opened in 1951 and later expanded, has 580 students.

'A lot of people spend their entire lives in the Throgs Neck area. They look for a house somewhere in the community. It's the third generation now.'


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