St. Teresa’s, a Beacon on the Lower East Side, Turns 150

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A sign outside the rectory door read simply, “The pastor is here—just yell.”

Inside was Father Donald Baker, who sat next to an open window to allow himself instant access to passersby and parishioners of St. Teresa’s parish on the Lower East Side.

That was last October, in the aftermath of the siege of Hurricane Sandy on New York City. There was no power anywhere in the near vicinity, and with telephone lines down and electricity out, communication was compromised.

Such resourcefulness is textbook Father Baker, who has served as pastor of St. Teresa’s for the past decade. Together, he and his parishioners are marking a major milestone in the history of the church on 141 Henry St.— the parish’s 150th anniversary.

“One hundred and fifty years of service down here at St. Teresa’s is something really to celebrate,” Father Baker said.

“The Lower East Side has been the place where the newest Americans came ashore,” he added. “For that entire time, St. Teresa’s has ministered to those newest Americans; we continue to.”

Cardinal Dolan served as principal celebrant of the multilingual anniversary Mass June 15 at St. Teresa’s Church.

Archbishop John Hughes dedicated St. Teresa’s Church on June 21, 1863. The church property can be traced to 1797, with the establishment of Rutgers Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian church dedicated there a year later is not, however, the church St. Teresa’s parish worships in today. On July 12, 1841, the cornerstone was laid and on April 21, 1842, the new church was officially dedicated.

After 1844, the Potato Famine brought tens of thousands of Irish immigrants to the docks that lined the Manhattan shores of the East River, mere blocks from the church.

In 1863, Rutgers Presbyterian Church voted to vacate the church, selling it to the archdiocese. It was then named for St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic who worked to reform the Carmelite religious order in her native Spain.

Upon its dedication, St. Teresa’s Church was quickly reconfigured for Catholic worship.

The church cost the archdiocese $46,000, and the parish struggled for years to repay that sum. Parishioners were poor immigrants, with barely enough money to support their families, let alone their church.

The Lower East Side of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a teeming neighborhood filled with people from all over the world. Immigrant Social Services, which helped immigrants with services and legal aid, grew out of the parish.

Soon after the establishment of the parish, its first pastor, Father James Boyce, turned his attention to one of the most pressing needs of his generation: the education of Catholic children. He established boys’ schools in 1865 and 1867, and then, in 1872, invited the Ursuline Sisters to staff a private girls’ school, the Ursuline Convent and Academy. That school became the foundation for the College of New Rochelle. The girls’ academy lasted until 1901, and the Ursuline Sisters left in 1911.

The parish school, staffed for years by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, closed in the 1940s.

The 1970s and ’80s are remembered by many in the parish as a time of poverty and crime on the Lower East Side. However, many also recall those years under the capable pastorships of Msgr. Donald Johnston and then-Msgr. Dennis Sullivan, now Bishop Sullivan of the Diocese of Camden, N.J., whom Father Baker succeeded.

In the 1990s, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, also known as the Cabrini Sisters, followed the example of their foundress, Mother Frances Cabrini, and came to the Lower East Side to work with immigrants. They established Cabrini Immigrant Services, which maintains the outreach today.

The events of 9/11 delayed the completion of a refurbishment of the church and rectory, as the parish was locked down by the military. The church reopened for worship at Christmas 2002 and was rededicated by Cardinal Egan in early 2003.

Father Baker supervised the completion of the renovation of the church and rectory and, in 2011, finished the installation of the Bishop Dennis Sullivan Pastoral Center in the rectory basement.

In 2007, Father Baker oversaw the merger of Nativity parish on Second Avenue in the East Village into St. Teresa’s, creating a new parish.

In the newly configured parish there are nine Sunday Masses in four languages: English, Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin.

Combined, nearly 850 faithful regularly worship at both sites; of that number, about 600 frequent St. Teresa’s.

Occupations of the diverse parish family include: hedge fund managers, sanitation workers, university professors, doctors, nurses and schoolteachers.

“We have to open our doors to the world,” Father Baker said. “Everyone who walks in the door should be treated as a brother or a sister, since we’re all created in the image and likeness of God.”

Father Baker is the sole full-time diocesan priest serving at the parish. Among those assisting him are Deacon Patrick So, a permanent deacon, adjunct clergy and priests in residence.

In addition to English, the pastor speaks Spanish and “can be polite in Chinese,” he said, explaining his skills are the equivalent of first-year Mandarin.

He credits the other multilingual clergy and staff members for their dedicated work on behalf of the parish.

In 2011-2012, St. Teresa’s had 265 baptisms, 151 of which were adults. There were 145 First Holy communicants, of which 113 were adults. Of the 119 confirmands, 107 were adults.

A family-style catechesis program has served the parish well, Father Baker said. Approximately 100 students in kindergarten through eighth grade are enrolled in the parish religious education program. Entrusted to their care is the director of religious education, Mauricio Zapata.

Although the parish has its share of impoverished sectors, Father Baker said ongoing development and an influx of young people are indicative that “the Lower East Side is changing rapidly, from generally poor to the next new developed neighborhood, the ‘Sohoization’ of the Lower East Side.”

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