November 7, 2002

Denis, Columba and Now Kateri

First, there was St. Denis parish in Beekman, in Dutchess County. It had a mission in Hopewell Junction, dedicated to St. Columba, about five miles from the parish church. In 1992, the mission became a parish. It, in turn, had a mission in LaGrangeville, dedicated to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, about six miles from the parish church. In July of this year, it too became a parish. And on Sunday, Oct. 20, I had the pleasure of celebrating Mass for hundreds of its parishioners in its bright and handsome parish church.

For hundreds of parishioners in a bright and handsome parish church! Is this the usual situation of a mission that has just become a parish?

By no means. Ordinarily, a mission is little more than a chapel with a limited Sunday Mass schedule for a handful of families and few of the regular programs and services of a parish. Not so, however, in the case of Blessed Kateri. Thanks to the wisdom and dedication of the pastor of St. Columba, the new Blessed Kateri parish was able to "hit the road running" in an altogether unusual and splendid way.

The pastor of St. Columba responsible for all of this is one of the new auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of New York, His Excellency, the Most Reverend Dominick J. Lagonegro, now the pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Newburgh, in Orange County. Three years ago, he and the parish council of St. Columba foresaw the continuing growth of the Catholic community in Dutchess County and recommended to the officials of the archdiocese the construction of a building that would serve as a church when Blessed Kateri became a parish and later as a parish center when Blessed Kateri needed a larger place of worship for what would certainly be a rapidly expanding community of faith.

The building, just off Route 82, is truly elegant. It seats 300 and boasts on its lower level a meeting hall, four classrooms for catechetical lessons, a kitchen and an office for the director of religious education. The church on the ground level is neat and graceful. Windows on both sides allow one to admire the Lord’s outdoor creation, where fields of corn and grass stretch as far as the eye can see. On the front wall is a large, carved-wood crucifix which is matched on either side by carved-wood statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph to complete the simple, elegant decoration of the sanctuary. Finally, above the inside rear door of the church is to be found a lovely painting of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, who in the late 1600s inspired her follow Native Americans and many Jesuit missionaries as well with her extraordinary piety and kindness.

When the Mission of Blessed Kateri became the Parish of Blessed Kateri, it already had 320 youngsters in its catechetical program. In less than three months that number has grown to 480, as the director of religious education, Mary Biasotti, proudly reports. It is also blessed with no less than three choirs – adult, children’s and folk – all of which sang magnificently at the Sunday Mass with instrumental accompaniment under the direction of Nina Ricci. (One of the instrumentalists was a young man of about 12 years of age who confided to me that he is studying the violin diligently and "playing a lot of Bach.")

Add to all of this a continuing relationship with St. Columba parish, which welcomes the parishioners of Blessed Kateri to such parish activities as three adult education lectures in October, a Life Teen Club with "Pizza with the Padres" on Saturday evenings and an impressive Scout program. Similarly, Blessed Kateri is still closely connected with St. Denis parish which will host guests from both Blessed Kateri and St. Columba for a Communion breakfast on All Souls Day with John Woods, Editor of CNY, as its featured speaker.

The pastor of Blessed Kateri parish, Reverend Monsignor William J. Belford, was waiting outside the church as my priest secretary and I arrived for the Mass. With him were 12 Knights of Columbus from the area who just a month before had held an Exemplification Ceremony in my honor. With coffee and rolls provided for all of us by Msgr. Belford, I had an opportunity to thank the Knights again for the Exemplification Ceremony and the gift they had given me in St. Patrick’s Cathedral when they came to New York City for the Columbus Day parade.

Msgr. Belford and I then sat down for a chat. Until three months ago, he was the young and beloved pastor of St. Catharine’s parish in Blauvelt, in Rockland County. Now he is the dedicated shepherd of a new and rapidly growing community of faith. He told me of the statue of the Sacred Heart that one of his new parishioners had just installed outside the church, the elegant tabernacle decorated with Native American symbols that another parishioner had donated in memory of her deceased husband, and the beautiful set of vestments that had been purchased by a group of parishioners just for the Mass this day. He outlined his plans for the parish, where he and his parish council were thinking of building the new church, his hopes for a parish school inasmuch as every seat in the St. Denis-St. Columba School is filled, and his dreams about a possible parish gymnasium.

His enthusiasm and devotion to the new congregation he has been called to serve were deeply moving. As we made our way back to Manhattan for a Mass for the Peruvian community in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the afternoon, I found myself on the proverbial "cloud nine." The Church continues to grow and thrive, I reminded myself, thanks to a gifted clergy and a marvelously loyal laity such as those whom I had met in this extraordinary and vibrant parish. Much work lies ahead as we plan for and provide new and expanded parishes and schools in the seven upper counties of the Archdiocese of New York, I continued to muse to myself. Still, the story of St. Denis, St. Columba and Blessed Kateri parishes removes any doubt about the future. The People of God of the Archdiocese have dealt with rapid growth before. They will do it again with wisdom, courage and grace.

"When you witness a demonstration of faith like this one,"a visitor remarked as we watched over 2,000 Peruvian Catholics file into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the afternoon, "you cannot question even for a moment how much the Lord loves His people and how much His people love the Lord." I agreed enthusiastically and immediately joined the applause as two dozen young Peruvian men came into view carrying up the aisle on their shoulders a mammoth statue of the patron of Peru, "El Señor de los Milagros."

"Where I was this morning gave me the same exhilarating sense of trust and confidence in the Lord," I declared. "Where was that?" a second visitor inquired. "In Dutchess County," I responded, "in a brand new parish filled with all the faith and joy we are experiencing here."

"You sound, Cardinal, as though you’ve had a great day," the first visitor remarked. "The greatest!" I replied. "The greatest!"

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York