March 1, 2007

At Full Speed

I May of 1964, Monsignor Charles W. Rader was named the first pastor of the new St. Francis of Assisi Parish in West Nyack (Rockland County). His parishioners numbered around 300. Twenty years later, Monsignor retired after having overseen the construction of a parish hall which was to serve also as the parish church. He was a beloved priest who, 13 years after his death, is still remembered with great affection.

In October of 1984, Father Dennis S. Fernandes was appointed to shepherd St. Francis of Assisi Parish which, like all of the parishes in Rockland County, was growing at a furious rate. Another much loved pastor, he saw to the building of an impressive Romanesque church which was dedicated in December of 1989, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of his ever-more-numerous parish family.

But the population of Rockland County continued to swell beyond all expectation, and the number of parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish followed suit. Hence, with the tragic passing of Father Fernandes and the naming in November of 1994 of Monsignor Edward J. Weber as his successor, it was decided that a larger church was urgently needed.

After much study and prayer, Monsignor Weber and his advisers worked out an architectural arrangement whereby Monsignor Rader’s parish hall and Father Fernandes’ parish church could be united by an addition constructed between them. The result is a stunning building large enough to accommodate over 1,200, as it did for the 10 o’clock Mass on Sunday, Feb. 11, when I had the honor and pleasure of dedicating the church.

Some would suggest in newspaper articles and television reports that the merging and closing of parishes is the "whole story" of the Archdiocese of New York at this point in its history. St. Francis of Assisi Parish in West Nyack illustrates how far this is off the mark. As a matter of fact, most of our over 400 parishes are either stable or growing in numbers of parishioners; and many are growing at a remarkable rate. Still, some-and they are few-have witnessed a decline in parish membership, especially in the City of New York and nearby suburbs, because of changes in the makeup of their neighborhoods and widespread commercialization, all of which has been accompanied by an ever-increasing move of Catholics into what we have come to call the "upper counties" of the Archdiocese.

Obviously, we cannot have churches that seat 300 with thousands attending the various Sunday Masses, just as we cannot have churches that seat a thousand and more with a hundred or less attending the various Sunday Masses. Like any community whose membership is stable in one area, expanding in another, and declining in yet another, the Archdiocese must adjust or, if you prefer, "realign," so as to serve all of its people as they need or deserve to be served.

Nor has the reasonableness of this escaped most Catholics. Just a few weeks ago, I was approached by the father of a family whose parish in New York City is being merged with a neighboring parish. "Don’t stop doing what needs to be done," he advised me. "The Catholics in the pews are in favor of realigning. In fact, they are applauding it. The Church has to be there for all of its people; and let’s face it, many are moving north. The Church must take care of them with all of the commitment and dedication we enjoy here in the City."

My visit to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in West Nyack drove all of this home most powerfully. The parish is growing by leaps and bounds, as are numerous other parishes in the counties north of the City. They are a source of immense pride and testimony to the vitality of the faith in our midst. Making sure that the spiritual needs of their parishioners are met with new and expanded churches, schools and charitable institutions is the "real story" of the Archdiocese at the beginning of the 21st century and one of its most daunting challenges as well, a challenge that we must meet with courage and total trust in the Lord.

Quite apart from being an ideal size for its parishioners, the St. Francis of Assisi Parish Church is a splendid structure with architectural and artistic details of great interest. A few examples will be in order.

The stained-glass windows that surround the sanctuary and recall the Mysteries of the Rosary, came from a convent of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart that was closed many years ago. They glow in the sunlight and create a warm, devotional atmosphere for the entire edifice.

The finely carved pews in the front section of the church were once in the chapel of a famous institution of Catholic charity in New York City, the New York Foundling, and were given to the parish when the Foundling moved from its original location. Behind them are new, finely carved pews that match them to perfection.

The four panels of stained glass on either side of the doors leading to a parish garden had been for years stored in the garage of a parishioner who had always hoped that they would one day find a place in his parish church. They had been left to him by a relative, as he and his family explained when I chatted with them before Mass.

Most interesting, however, are three stone columns near the garden doors which are intentionally not covered with the handsome wood veneer that encases all of the other columns in the church. The reason, Monsignor Weber told me, is to make it clear that the building of parish communities of faith is never a completed task. It entails an ongoing process of growing, adjusting and renewing. To which I added: "and realigning too."

We had a most enjoyable "coffee-and" after the Mass in the parish center. I had the pleasure of posing for photographs with individuals and families of every size and, after consuming too many chocolate chip cookies, got into my car to return to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for an afternoon Mass with over 2,000 New Yorkers from Honduras. During the trip, I looked through the bulletin of St. Francis of Assisi Parish. On one page I found notice of two dozen meetings, lectures, liturgies, retreats, concerts, trips and such for the local community. It was crystal clear that Rockland County and its extraordinary parish in West Nyack are alive, growing and forging ahead at full speed.

With prayerful best wishes, may I remain
Very truly yours in Christ,
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York