Three schoolgirls—one Caucasian, one African-American and one Asian—recently sang as they happily skipped, hand in hand, to class on the campus of St. Ignatius Loyola on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Before they arrived at the parish’s grammar school, a male classmate joyfully joined them.
The charming scene was shared by Father Dennis J. Yesalonia, S.J., pastor of St. Ignatius, as told to him by a parishioner who witnessed the children’s innocent interaction on her way to daily Mass at the church.
“This particular parishioner said it warmed her heart,” the pastor said, “that our children are actually anxious to get to school and enjoy being with one another in all of their diversity.”
“That’s sort of a reflection of the spirit that you’ll find here,” Father Yesalonia explained. “It certainly evidences itself in the celebrations that we have.”
Located at 980 Park Ave. at East 84th Street, St. Ignatius Loyola is celebrating the milestone of 150 years as a Jesuit parish.
The stately structure stands on the site of the former St. Lawrence O’Toole Church, which was founded in 1851 and named for a 12th-century bishop of Dublin.
In the church’s early years, parishioners were primarily German and Irish Catholic immigrant families.
The church was renamed St. Ignatius Loyola in 1898 upon the completion of the new church facing Park Avenue. Before that, the church had faced 84th Street.
St. Ignatius is part of a 3.5-acre Jesuit complex that includes a Jesuit residence, reception hall, rectory, day nursery, elementary school and Loyola School, an independent, four-year, coed Jesuit high school. Regis High School, a private, tuition-free Jesuit college preparatory school for Roman Catholic young men, is located across the street. The foundations of both Loyola School and Regis High were rooted in the parish but over time became independent.
Father Yesalonia served as principal celebrant of the 150th anniversary Mass on Oct. 30. Father Walter Modrys, S.J., a former pastor, delivered the homily.
“It’s an exciting time to recognize who we are as Jesuit,” Father Yesalonia said. “To be a Jesuit parish is to commit ourselves to the Jesuit values and ideals.”
He pointed to the parish mission statement, which cites the Ignatian way, “that we manifest our service to the Church through prayer, community and service.”
“We reach out to those who are in need, including all of the members of the parish, and serve in different ministries to reflect the love of God through the ways in which we are present,” the pastor said, including feeding the poor, providing a shelter for women and conducting clothes drives, as well as by the many people who participate in Ignatian spirituality, “wanting to meet Christ through prayer.”
Additionally, the parish’s family ministry has many volunteers “to bring together on a weekly basis 350 to 400 people at our family Mass.”
St. Ignatius, Father Yesalonia said, is “a great model of what it is to do more—not simply settle for what the expectation is but to volunteer to contribute in some fashion in the various ministries of the parish.”
St. Ignatius Loyola has 4,320 registered families. In addition to its liturgies, which include three weekday Masses and seven on the weekends, the parish provides programs covering faith formation, community outreach and religious education. A lecture series, throughout the year, features notable speakers who address relevant issues and topics.
The 11 a.m. Sunday Mass is celebrated at two locations. Between 650-850 attend Mass in the main body of the church; another 350-400 attend the family Mass below the nave.
For the pastoral year 2015-2016, the parish celebrated 185 baptisms, 35 Funeral Masses and 65 marriages, as well First Holy Communion for 151 and confirmation for 146.
The church can accommodate 900 in its pews. In addition to its beauty, and lengthy aisle down the nave, “the scale of the church is inviting,” the pastor said.
He noted the sensibilities for education, architecture and arts associated with Jesuit institutions.
A centerpiece of the parish’s music program is a mechanical tracker organ that weighs 30 tons—almost the equivalent of one New York City subway car—is 45 feet high and has 5,000 pipes.
St. Ignatius Loyola is a designated New York City Landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Funeral Masses of dignitaries and celebrities that have been offered at St. Ignatius Loyola have included first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and son John F. Kennedy Jr.; Gov. Mario Cuomo; fashion designer Oscar de la Renta; actress Lena Horne and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
President John F. Kennedy and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco are among the renowned who have worshiped there.
“We’ve certainly had royalty…presidents…politicians…notable actors,” the pastor said. “There’s a prominence related to the church by way of those who come here for consolation at moments of sorrow and sadness.”
Unknown to some, Father Yesalonia said, is that the parish is made up of families who span the economic strata, just as it would in any other community.
“I think when people think of the Upper East Side they think of wealth and prominence,” he said.
In reality, “there are people here, some of who, thanks be to God, have financial means that make their lives comfortable; other people are just like everybody else who have needs, and struggle in their daily lives to meet their expenses.”
The parish, the pastor said, is color-blind to economic status and professional background.
“What we try to do is to make everyone feel the same. It certainly is the spirit within which everybody greets one another as members of this parish.”