In the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, it was a time of sacred celebration for faithful parishioners and their dedicated pastor, and for the Archbishop of New York as well. On the evening of Nov. 2, Cardinal Dolan served as the principal celebrant and homilist at a Mass marking the parish’s 150th anniversary.
“It was a celebration of looking back at what St. Elizabeth has done, what it has been doing for this community over the years, and what it will continue to do in the future,” Father Ambiorix Rodriguez, the parish’s pastor, told CNY.
Father Rodriguez added that the parish family “is vibrant, there is a unique pride…It is a celebration of many more years to come. The people are content. And it is not just a celebration, it is rededication— we have been renovating the church.”
A grateful pastor and parish community heard the cardinal speak about the special significance of “the life of faith, the sacramental life,” and how their dedicated parish life nurtures their faith through the sacraments and the ministries. The multicultural parish community, for the past several decades, has been primarily comprised of parishioners of Hispanic ancestry, mainly the Dominican Republic. Indeed, Father Rodriguez is Dominican-born himself.
The church is on West 187th Street at Wadsworth Avenue. Earlier in the parish’s history, the area’s residents were mostly of Irish, Italian and other European backgrounds. Today, St. Elizabeth has a weekly Mass attendance of 2,300—11 Mass celebrations in all, including four in Spanish.
St. Elizabeth School is across from the church, on West 187th Street. Established in 1936, it now enrolls 350 students, from PreK3 through eighth grade. The principal is Jon Frega. The parish’s religious education director is Sister Maria Cleotilde, P.C.I.
“It was beautiful—a unique and special event,” Father Rodriguez said of the anniversary Mass. “There were about 1,200 people. The church seats about 800, so it was standing room only. There was an overflow outside, and the people were in the street. It was a milestone.” Father Rodriguez, who was ordained in 1997, has been pastor of St. Elizabeth for five years.
The anniversary Mass had more than 20 concelebrants, including Auxiliary Bishop Peter Byrne, retired Auxiliary Bishop Gerald T. Walsh, retired Auxiliary Bishop Josu Iriondo, and former pastors and parochial vicars of the parish. Bishop Byrne and Bishop Walsh are former St. Elizabeth pastors.
The large turnout speaks volumes about how much parish families value their church home. Many are lifelong members, with generations of spiritual journeys through the sacraments and the parish ministries.
The parish’s many ministries and programs include offering services, meals and fellowship for the elderly through the Star Senior Center; and spiritual care at the Isabella Nursing Home and the Tryon Nursing Home.
Father Rodriguez, the archdiocesan spiritual director, noted the parish’s dedication serving as the center of the Emmaus movement. Through Emmaus, many parish communities are renewed in the spirit of the New Evangelization. The pastor noted St. Elizabeth’s also has parishioners who are active in the Cursillo and Charismatic Renewal movements.
The parish has members active in the Comité Altagraciano/Mercedario (Our Lady of Altagracia, Our Lady of Mercy) as well.
St. Elizabeth parish has a special connection with the nearby Shrine of St. Frances Cabrini on Fort Washington Avenue, which is located within parish boundaries. Parish priests celebrate daily and Sunday liturgies there, as well as sacramental services for community members and pilgrims.
Since 1988 the parish has hosted the Officer Michael Buczek and Christopher Hoban NYPD Police Mass and March honoring two officers killed in separate incidents three hours apart. Both were serving in Upper Manhattan when they were shot in the line of duty the night of Oct. 18, 1988.
St. Elizabeth parish was founded in 1869 by Father Cornelius J. Callaghan, and the first church building was designed by Nicholas Le Brun. The address was on Broadway at West 187th Street. The structure was donated by James Gordon Bennett Sr., publisher of the New York Herald, who embraced the Catholic faith in his later years. Archbishop John McCloskey, who would become the first American cardinal three years later, dedicated the church in January 1872.
In 1925, the church building burned down and the current structure, designed by Robert J. Reiley, was later constructed a block to the east on the southwest corner of 187th Street and Wadsworth Avenue. The exterior is a neo-Gothic style, and the spacious interior resembles a Tudor Gothic with a flat-beamed ceiling; it is a square room that is as wide as it is long.
On the sidewalls are stained glass windows depicting the story of Christ, and on the front wall are fresco watercolor paintings, and two large paintings surrounded by Carpenter Gothic detailing. Cardinal Patrick Hayes dedicated the new church in September 1929.
These days, assisting Father Rodriguez with pastoral services, are Father Michael Eguino, S.D.B., parochial vicar; Father Luis Saldaña, Sunday associate; and Father Clement Umoenoh, priest in residence.
Jenny Saravia, 65, a longtime parishioner of St. Elizabeth, said the Mass was “wonderful.”
“We are grateful to the cardinal, to everyone,” Mrs. Saravia told CNY. “This was a big blessing. Our three grown children received their sacraments there, and they went to St. Elizabeth School.” She and her husband, Cesar, are Peruvian-born, and they are active parish volunteers.
Another longtime St. Elizabeth parishioner, Nancy Gutierrez, 52, is a native of Manhattan who is of Dominican ancestry. She and her husband, Johnny, have two grown daughters.
“This church is my second home,” she said. “It is a landmark for our community. I have grown spiritually and in service (through active volunteer work).”