Feature Story

St. Lucy's at 100

East Harlem parish has incorporated changes to remain a special place

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In 1942, when Archbishop Francis Spellman dedicated the new St. Lucy's School in Manhattan, he officiated in English. But he and every other clerical dignitary present also spoke briefly in Italian--the language of the founding parishioners and many of their descendants.

When Archbishop Egan celebrated Mass for the 100th anniversary of St. Lucy's parish on Dec. 17 in the newly refurbished church at 344 E. 104th St., English and Spanish were the languages of the readings and of the program for parishioners and guests.

But the archbishop, joining parish administrator Father Robert V. Lott and priests of the parish for the celebration, also respected the original heritage by speaking in Italian. And in another Italian touch, St. Lucy--the fourth-century martyr especially venerated in Italy--was honored in the opening procession by the carrying of the traditional crown of lighted candles to her chapel.

The two liturgical celebrations, more than a half century apart, reflected the change in populations in the wider East Harlem community over the years. The many Italian-Americans who moved away have been replaced by people mostly of Hispanic heritage.

There are hints of the change in the statuary and decor of the church as well. Across from the St. Lucy Chapel to the right of the altar stands the new statue of Nuestra Senora de la Providencia, patroness of Puerto Rico, in the Marian Shrine on the left.

Josie Fasola, 87, is one of the few remaining Italian-Americans in the parish. She gets along fine with the newer parishioners, saying she finds them "very nice and friendly."

But she also has good memories about the way it used to be, when First Avenue, the main shopping street in the neighborhood, was filled with vegetable and fruit stores operated by Italian immigrants.

They're gone now, but the parish and the always well-maintained church go on. "All of the stained-glass windows that we had back then, they're all still there," Mrs. Fasola said proudly.

Another example of preservation is the beautifully sculpted marble altar. When the Second Vatican Council directed that the celebrant face the congregation, many churches removed the altars from the sacristy wall and replaced them. St. Lucy's was able to move its original altar to the front of the sanctuary, where it remains one of the church's "jewels."

A new jewel was added last November, when a new Chapel of the Saints of the Americas was installed in the sacristy. It has some two dozen statues, along with pictures of saints and other men and women known for their holiness.

Archbishop Egan, in his homily at the centennial Mass, praised the parish for its restoration effort, taking particular note of the saints depicted in the windows and statuary including St. Anthony, St. Margaret, St. Philip Neri, St. Ann and St. Dominic.

He called on everyone to reflect on the images. "They're all heroes of faith, justice and compassion," he said.

Ten-year-old Eric Espana, an altar server at the centennial Mass, said his favorite statue is one showing the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He said his family has a smaller version of the image at home, which he prayed to during a period when he was home sick to ask for help in getting well.

Eric is a fifth-grader at St. Francis de Sales & St. Lucy Academy, the name of the school that arose from a merger of St. Lucy's and St. Francis de Sales schools in 1993.

At that time, the schools had a combined enrollment of 250 students. Since the merger, which involved a commitment by the Congregation of Christian Brothers to serve as administrators, enrollment has increased every year.

Currently, nearly 600 students are enrolled--attending prekindergarten to grade five in the St. Lucy building at 340 E. 104th St. and grades six to eight in the St. Frances de Sales building at 106 E. 97th St., said Brother Terence M. Connolly, C.F.C., the principal.

An alumnus, Jose Grajales-Valenzuela, 26, a pastoral associate at St. Lucy's, directs the parish religious education program for 75 students and works with the parish housing ministry. A native of Ecuador, he recently earned a law degree from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law and is currently studying for the bar exam.

The education at St. Lucy's "was the foundation for whatever I've accomplished," he said. "I'm very grateful for the efforts of the Christian Brothers and the lay teachers who generously gave of themselves."

The parish was founded on Nov. 12, 1899, when Archbishop Michael Corrigan appointed Father Edmund W. Cronin to take charge of all the Englishand Italian-speaking Catholics east of Second Avenue from 97th Street north to 110th Street.

To accommodate the first Mass on Jan. 21, 1900, Father Cronin procured a loft at 2008-2010 First Ave. which he furnished as a chapel.

Five months later, the growing congregation began attending Masses in more spacious quarters at 338 E. 103rd St. The following year, a new basement church and rectory were dedicated at the present site, 344 E. 104th St.

Under Father Patrick J. Lennon, the second pastor, a combination upper church and school were dedicated on Nov. 7, 1915, with the Pallottine Sisters staffing the school. They were succeeded in 1979 by the Christian Brothers.

In the ensuing years, 11 other pastors and a number of parochial vicars served the parish. When Father Esviardo Palomino retired as pastor in 1998 and was named pastor emeritus, Father Lott, pastor of St. Francis de Sales, became administrator.

Father Palomino resides at St. Lucy's and celebrates weekday Mass and the Spanish Mass on Sunday. Msgr. Oscar Aquino, parochial vicar at St. Francis de Sales, also assists at St. Lucy's.

St. Lucy's 300 parishioners are served by three weekend Masses. Activities include English-speaking and Spanish-speaking religious societies and two choirs, a hospitality committee, Eucharistic ministers, lectors and ushers.

St. Lucy's works closely with the eight other parishes of the East Harlem vicariate in various ways, including the St. Francis de Sales Development Association (SFDS)--the housing arm of the nine parishes established in 1988.

But St. Lucy's had begun its own housing outreach long before. In 1975 it joined with others in the community to form a nonprofit corporation, the East 104th Street Housing Development Fund Co., Inc.-St. Lucy's Apartment House Project. It sponsored construction of 100 units of affordable housing in two buildings, one next to the church and the other directly behind it on the next block.

Parishioners continue to serve on the board of directors, and many of them live in the development. The opening of the development "was a great day for all involved," Father Lott said, "and a notable achievement for the community."

For that reason, and for reasons going back a century, St. Lucy's is a parish community that has had special meaning for its people in many ways.

Petrin Ramos, the parish administrative assistant and office manager at St. Lucy's, remembers how hard it was for her moving from Puerto Rico to Manhattan in 1946 at age 16. It wasn't until 1982, she says, that she moved into St. Lucy's parish and found the sense of community that made everything look brighter. "It's a miracle how St. Lucy's changed my life," she said. "It was like I started living again."

Mrs. Ramos, a parish trustee, said, "I love St. Lucy's. Many people do, and I tell them, 'You have to help us and work very hard to maintain St. Lucy's.' "

She said she thanks God every morning that they do.

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