The History of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish in Richmond Hill
The following historic compilation on the history of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish has been researched and provided by Carl Ballenas.
A history of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish must begin with its patron saint and to the community and its members into which this church was founded.
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre was born in France more than two hundred
years ago. In his short life, he lived to be only 35 years old; this poor wandering man chose a life of extreme poverty, hunger, rags and silent contemplation. His sanctity was recognized by many and when he died in Rome in 1783 the children ran through the streets crying, “The saint is dead!” The process of his canonization was begun immediately but was hampered by the French Revolution. In 1883, the one hundredth anniversary of Benedict Joseph’s death, Pope Leo XIII canonized him sainthood.
The community that would nourish Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish began in 1868. This area of lush forests and farmland lay merely one mile west of the old town of Jamaica and was often called West Jamaica by many for want of a better name. At what is now 111th Street and Jamaica Avenue stood the tiny farming hamlet of Clarenceville created in 1853.
On June 29, 1868 a New York lawyer Albon Platt Man and his partner, landscape architect, Edward Richmond purchased the Lefferts farm. Their purpose was to turn the farm into a new settlement and they would eventually name it Richmond Hill. It would become one of the earliest residential communities on Long Island. It was one of the first so-called “garden” developments; followed later by Forest Hills and Kew Gardens.
Over the next year, streets and avenues were laid out and the land divided into lots. The area where Myrtle, Lefferts and Railroad Avenues meet Jamaica Avenue, along with the completed and commodious Richmond Hill Depot, earned this section the name “Gateway of Richmond Hill.”
When the first advertisements on this new garden community were published in 1870, Richmond Hill had no more than 250 acres and was located north of Jamaica Avenue. The land south of Jamaica Avenue was sparsely populated and was covered with orchards and farmland.
The community of Clarenceville and Richmond Hill coexisted for many years but the village of Richmond Hill would soon over shadow the smaller and older hamlet. By 1885 a movement came about to create a new village east of Clarenceville a south of Richmond Hill. The proprietor of this development was Frederick W. Dunton, a nephew of Austin Corbin, president of the Long Island Railroad. Mr. Dunton was the president of the “Bicycle Railroad” and became interested in the development of real estate on Long Island in 1883. Along with William Zielger, who was a large land holder the village of Morris Park was created. The place was so called because many years earlier it had been owned by a Mr. Morris. It had formerly been known as Morris Grove, originally a ten acre tract of woodland enclosed by a rail fence and with a crude frame structure which served as a shelter against rain. It was a favorite picnic ground for many years. The railroad established a station there and called it Morris Park.
During the years 1872 to 1878 a young man was doing his priestly studies in Rome. Undoubtedly this young seminarian had heard much about the Blessed Benedict Joseph and had cultivated a devotion to him. It is said that the saint’s humility appealed strongly to him. The name of this young man was Charles E. McDonnell, who on April 25, 1892 was consecrated the second Bishop of Brooklyn in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, New York by Archbishop Corrigan. On the second of May the new Bishop crossed the East River and took possession of his new diocese which included all of Long Island at the time. Brooklyn, on the western end of his diocese was a city in its own right; and Queens was a sprawling county of scattered hamlets and villages, counting among them Clarenceville, Richmond Hill and Morris Park.
The small group of Catholics who had settled in Clarenceville, Richmond Hill and Morris Park would travel to Saint Monica’s in Jamaica or to Saint Elizabeth’s in Woodhaven to hear Mass. The neighborhood was predominately Protestant and many of the original settlers were of New England stock. However, the few Catholics decided to petition the new Bishop of Brooklyn to found a parish in their area.
Mr. Thomas Lally, a builder and real estate dealer of Morris Park, who lived on 115th Street and 95th Avenue, was chosen to petition the new Bishop to establish a parish in the community. The request was granted and on July 12th, 1892 the young Bishop visited the Catholics and “expressed himself as thoroughly pleased with the surroundings and purchased eight lots at an unusually low figure.” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle – 1892) The eight lots were found in the hamlet of Clarenceville on the Stoothoff farm, located between Jamaica Avenue and Atlantic Avenue. They were sold to the Bishop by Joel Fowler for a price of $2,300. Three days later he appointed Rev. William J. Maguire to the pastorate. At the same time the Bishop placed the infant parish under the protection of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. It was the first of many parishes established during his episcopate. It is the only parish in the world that has been placed under the protection of this poor wandering saint. The original parish boundaries extended from the Rockaway division of the Long Island Railroad to Van Wyck Avenue and from the Jamaica Town line to Jamaica Bay.
Father William Maguire was born in Brooklyn. He made his classical studies in Saint John’s College and his theological studies at Niagara University. He had the distinction of being the first St. John’s graduate to be ordained to the priesthood. For fourteen years he had served as assistant to Father Moran, the pastor of the Church of the Nativity, Brooklyn. The new pastor went bravely to work, visiting the Catholics of his scattered parish. He rented Fielder’s Hall on Jamaica Avenue at the northeast corner of 111th Street in the hamlet of Clarenceville and celebrated the first Mass on July 24, 1892 for a congregation of sixty people, mostly of Irish and German nationality. He offered two masses that day, one at eight o’clock and the second at ten-thirty. The first collection amounted to $29.54.
By July 29, 1892 a number of the congregation felt that the eight lots, located in Clarenceville did not suit their needs and bargained for 12 lots on Johnson Avenue (118th Street) in Morris Park. The price was set at $4,300. Many in Clarenceville were against the new site and a petition, containing over 70 names was sent to the Bishop but the new site prevailed.
The first rectory was a house rented by Father Maguire and was located on 116th Street near Atlantic Avenue. The first Trustees were Timothy Deehan and James McEnery. Mr. Deehan had a large farm on 111th Street just south of Atlantic Avenue. He kept his horse and carriage at the services of the new pastor and often accompanied Father Maguire on his sick calls and pastoral visits. Father Maguire did not have any assistants at that time and had to keep oil in the lamps shovel snow and work the furnace by himself.
A glance at the records reveals that twelve children were baptized the first year of which the first was Frederick Charles Handte, on August 14. Mr. Patrick Moriarty and Rose Mary Courtney had the distinction of being the first to take their nuptial vows in the newly founded parish on November 23, 1892. The first marriage in the newly built church belonged to Mr. Moriarty’s cousin Michael Moriarty.
Meanwhile, preparations were made for Bishop McDonnell to lay the cornerstone for the new church on November 6, 1892. The wooden church was designed by the well known architect Mr. Raymond F. Almirall and the contract to build it fell to Mr. Mulligan. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle article described the ceremony that took place. Present at the laying of the cornerstone were more than one thousand people. The music was sung by a chorus of twenty voices all from the Church of the Nativity (Father Maguire’s former parish). The membership of the new parish was about four hundred parishioners. “In the cornerstone was placed a box containing copies of the daily newspapers, specimens of the different American coins and a history of the parish and its work prepared by the pastor”. (Although this original church no longer exists, the cornerstone does. In 1916, a new brick church was erected and the old church was moved to 117th Street to serve as a Parish Hall. On the second side of the cornerstone a new date of 1916 was engraved. Later the building became a school annex and was finally torn down in 1938 to make way for the new school extension. The original 1892 cornerstone with the two dates was saved and reset into the foundation of the school addition.)
At the November 6, 1892 cornerstone ceremony Father McCarthy of Saint Augustine’s Church gave the sermon. It is a treasure of the parish archives and the past hundred years has enhanced the beauty of the words.
“Dear Brethren – The condition of the weather is hardly favorable for any extended remarks, here in the open air, and, though I have much to say to you, I will only make a short address. In the beginning of a new church and in the laying of its cornerstone, religion takes another step in advance, another lamp is lighted that will cast its brilliant rays into the darkness; another pathway of light begins to appear between God’s throne in heaven and God’s church on earth, up with the angels will carry the petitions and heart breakings of the many who are needy and afflicted on earth and come back laden with help and grace to bear. The solemn ceremony which takes place here this afternoon mean this and much more. This event is of the most intense importance to the present and to the future, to society at large and to the church of God. Every good Christian is a blessing to the world. He radiates a good effect on society in favor of order, just as fire emits heat. As sunshine smiles on this earth, just so does real goodness communicates itself and make itself felt, and any organization, no matter of what character, which has for its motive the betterment of society is doing an incalculable good to that society. Here will be given the great marriage sacrament. From the citadel of truth went out the mandate, many centuries ago, one for one only and the principle of monogamy, and when a good Christian man takes that sacrament and enters into the martial state, he should transmit. So far as it is in his power, the goodness he possess and help the one he takes unto himself to go with him to heaven. In time children come to them and these will need the most careful care and teaching. Their steps must be set in the right path and they must be guarded so that they do not stumble and fall.
So I say this occasion is the utmost importance for the future as well as today. Society thinks it is doing great things toward reforming mankind and society is doing its best, the legislative body of this state does great things and enacts wise laws with the same end in view and they do the best they can, but to what purpose, if what they do is not sustained by institutions like this, whose cornerstone, thank God, is being laid to-day. The legislatures pass laws to protect society, they strain every nerve, but they need the help and support of Christian institutions. Institutions like this virtually quench the fires which would burn men’s souls forever and raise men to a place where they are in perfect safety here and hereafter. Therefore, when a Catholic church is started a favor is conferred upon the country and thinking men will acknowledge this. We place an angel at the front door, not like those with flaming swords who stood at the door of the gates of Eden, but to beckon them to come in, and St. Benedict Labre stands before the great throne in heaven interceding for you and all whom you may be called upon to assist into the light. Here in this holy place God’s people will be ministered to. Is it not well for us to know that when we are crushed to earth by different circumstances God’s saints in heaven are interceding for us? Is it not a good thing that St. Benedict Labre is chosen as the patron of this church, showing that all the saints were not canonized years ago, but here was one, taken from a lowly walk in life and canonized by the present pontiff? In this place God’s word will be preached and will evoke sentiments of goodness. Here waters of regeneration will be poured on the heads of young and old; here the sacraments of the mass, with its governing objects to give glory to the Eternal One, to offer up sacrifice for the wrongdoing of the people, both here and abroad, and to ask mercy for us. We say to you that we congratulate you upon the appointment of him who has been sent here to carry on this noble work. I must refrain at this time from saying anything in his presence, but if what he has done in the past means anything, then we can truthfully say to you that his tongue has, indeed, been touched with eloquence, his heart filled with zeal and his mind imbued with the full knowledge of what he has undertaken. For your sake may this building last for years; may God strengthen all connected with it and bring eternal salvation to pastor and people alike.”
Next, Bishop McDonnell stepped to the podium: “I must confess that I come forward with great difference in the hope of adding anything to the very able adage that you have already heard. I should not, however, allow this occasion to pass by without thanking you all for the interest you have shown in being present to encourage Father Maguire and on the success you have undertaken, for I have no doubt that this venture will be a success. Your patron saint, Benedict Labre, although canonized only a few years ago, has already done something for this country. There was in Rome a distinguished Protestant minister, the Reverend John Carey of Boston, who, by the death of Benedict Joseph Labre, was brought… into the faith, and he came back to this country to work in the missions of New England.
So that saint, on whose virtues the church has placed her stamp of approval by canonizing him, is well selected as the patron of this church. It is necessary that I should ask you to help your pastor in the work he has taken up, because I feel that when you see him laboring with untiring energy for this parish I know tat you will come to his assistance and hold up his hands and show him nothing but kindness and… generosity in all his endeavors. And now in bringing this service to a close, I pray God to bless you and all your families now and in the future in all your undertakings.”
In less than a year’s time the church building was completed and it was dedicated by Bishop Mc Donnell on October 8, 1893. When it was ready the local papers gave a glowing account of its beauty. One describing its location said, “The new temple of worship is situated on Johnson Avenue, nearly opposite the Morris Park Station of the Long Island Railroad, and is surrounded on all sides by very neat looking villas, showing much prosperity.” It presented a “very cheerful appearance”. “The steeple (one hundred and forty feet high) is mounted by a large gilt cross which is visible for many miles.” A vivid description of the church was given by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“However pleasing the appearance of the exterior, it does not prepare the visitor for the surprise of the inside, for in place of a neat but humble little country church, the richness of the fittings, the elaborate decorations are so striking, so ornate, that the people of many long established city parishes might well envy those Morris Park.
The pews are of highly polished ash with cherry trim, and are surprisingly comfortable. The pew ends have tastefully carved Gothic panels. In the apse behind the main altar are three stained glass windows depicting figures of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus, Mary and St. Joseph. Sparing no expense, Father Maguire hired the distinguished artist Leon Dabo to decorate the church’s interior.
The dome of the apse contains a painting showing two angels in adoration, a very rich and skillful composition by Mr. Dabo. Between the windows are the busts of the four evangelists by the same artists. The walls of the church have been painted in warm olive tints, relieved by a colder ornamentation, which, together with the really beautiful carpet of rich, warm hues, produces a most pleasing effect. Over the side altars, of which there ate two, are life size statues of Saint Mary and St. Joseph and above these are mural paintings, depicting scenes from the life of St. Benedict.
The walls of the body of the church have been left their natural colors at present, but the eye is agreeably relieved by the grand fresco depicting three angels holding a scroll, on which are the words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” over the organ gallery and forming a vis-à-vis to the altar. Mr. Leon Dabo, the artist who added a great deal to the ornamentation of this building, is one of the most distinguished figure painters of the younger school and is at present engaged in the gigantic task of decorating the basilica of St. John the Baptist of this city (Brooklyn) and St. Paul’s church. New York. The Stations of the Cross depicts the agony of the Saviour in a befitting manner and fill up the inter-sections between the stained glass very well.”
Father Maguire was very pleased with the reception his church received. The high altar of the church once belonged to the Church of the Nativity, Father Maguire’s first parish. He arranged with his good friend and pastor of Nativity, Father Moran, to have the entire altar dismantled, rebuilt, and elaborately decorated in rich colors, embellished with gold leaf.
The Church has sufficient land to erect to the left a school and house for the sisters and to the right a parsonage. It is expected that Father Maguire will begin the erection of the latter this fall, as the debt of the church, which cost all told $15,000, is regarded as very small.” A description of the dedication ceremony was found in the Brooklyn Times. “The ceremony began at 10 o’clock and was witnessed by several hundred people from Brooklyn in addition to the parishioners. At the rectory the bishop and attending clergy, vested and formed in procession followed in the wake of the cross-bearer and acolytes to the grand central portal of the church, outside the building. Standing the Bishop repeated in Latin this prayer “Assist we beseech thee O Lord, our actions by the holy inspiration” etc. Then the Bishop began at the antiphon. This was as followed by the chorus chanting the “Miserere.” In the meantime, toward the right, the procession of clergymen proceeded around the exterior of the church, the Bishop sprinkling the walls above and below with holy water.
Returning to the place where the procession started the antiphon, “Asperges,” was repeated by the clergy and the Bishop offered prayer. The clergy entered the church, and chanting the Litany of the Saints proceeded to the high altar, where the Bishop blessed the church and altar.
During the solemn high mass which followed the Bishop, in cope and miter, occupied a throne on the gospel side of the altar. The Rev. M. J. Moran, pastor of the Church of the Nativity, this city, was celebrant of the mass. The Rev. Henry Gallagher, of St. Michael’s Church, was deacon, and the Rev. Father Durick, of St. Ann’s was sub-deacon. The Very Rev. J/. P. McNamara, V. G., and the Rev. John I. Barrett were the deacons of honor, and the Rev. Walter Powers, of the Transfiguration Church were master of ceremonies. The Rev. Father Doyle, C. S. P., delivered an eloquent sermon. He preached on “The Unity, Sanctity and Indefectibility of the Church.” The Rev. William Maguire, pastor of St. Benedict Joseph Labre Church, told how pleased he was at the efforts put forth by the members of the congregation in aiding him to erect the new church, and to the clergy and visiting friends he expressed his thanks for their attendance. The Bishop spoke briefly. The church could seat only 450 and was filled to capacity.
The following year 1894 saw major changes that affected the hamlets of Clarenceville, Richmond Hill and Morris Park. On September 27, 1894 the New Village was incorporated. According to locals newspapers the movement to incorporate Richmond Hill and certain surrounding territory proved successful, the project having been carried by vote at a special election. The election was conducted by Supervisor Everitt and Town Clerk McCook. The total number of votes cast was 242. Of this 144 were in favor of incorporation and 98 against. The incorporated district included Richmond Hill, Morris Park and Clarenceville. On November 15, 1894 elections were held for officers for the new village of Richmond Hill. A president, treasurer, and three trustees were to be decided. There were 213 votes polled. Alrick Hubbell Man, son of Albon Platt Man, founder of Richmond Hill was elected the first President of Richmond Hill. The newly elected officers were sworn in the next day. Thus the hamlets of Clarenceville, Richmond Hill and Morris Park were incorporated into the Village of Richmond Hill and Saint Benedict Joseph Parish was now a part of the Village of Richmond Hill.
Earlier in that same year on June 10, 1894 the first canonical visitation and administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation was held. Forty-six were confirmed, of whom forty were children and six adults.
The next structure to be built in the parish of Saint Benedict Joseph was the rectory in 1895. The wooden edifice would rival any of the mansions erected throughout Richmond Hill. Its massive front porch with elegant double columns added a feeling of strength and stability. The parish was noted for its magnificent and spacious green lawns where numerous social affairs were held.
Social life was as important to the congregation as their spiritual life. During the early years many societies sprang to life, including a Dramatic Society which put on plays and musical presentations.
Village life came to an abrupt end when in January 1898 Richmond Hill was swept into the whirlpool of Greater New York City. Now Richmond Hill was a part of the borough of Queens and part of the greatest city in the United States.
Sometime before 1901 a wooden Parish Hall was erected behind the church and was used for a number of years for many parish events and socials. It also served as the Sunday school building.
The new century marked a change in leadership. In 1900 Father Maguire was transferred to Transfiguration Parish. A sad farewell was given when a number of parishioners gathered at the rectory and presented their former pastor with a gold chalice in token of their love and esteem. Timothy Deehan, chairman of the presentation committee, uncovered the chalice, which was of an exquisite design and workmanship, richly set with sapphires, rubies, emeralds, amethysts and diamonds.
Bishop McDonnell set father John O’Neill to administer the affairs of the parish until a pastor would be appointed. He came on February first and remained a little over a month until the arrival of Father Henry Zimmer who was appointed to the pastorate. But Father Zimmer’s health was delicate and after two weeks he requested the Bishop to relieve him of the assignment. Father O’Neill returned on March 17th and remained until April 24th when Father Patrick J. Faheytook possession as the new pastor.
Father Fahey was born in Galway, Ireland on March 17, 1857 and was ordained in Westminster Cathedral, London in 1884. Soon after his ordination he joined the Josephite community in England and was sent on a mission to Africa. In 1887 the work of the order was extended to the United States and Father Fahey found himself doing mission work in Richmond, Virginia. Objections were made to the work of the Josephites, largely because of the refusal to segregate whites from blacks. Father Fahey found similar problems in his next mission in Baltimore, and eventually was transferred to Brooklyn. He first served at Saint Cecilia’s parish in Brooklyn and then to the Church of the Sacred Heart, before he was assigned the pastorate at Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. He fitted admirably into the life of his new parish and he proved to be a worthy successor to the popular Father Maguire.
As the years rolled by, the parish increased in numbers and the church could no longer accommodate the crowds. Gradually other parishes were formed within its original boundaries. The first daughter parish of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish was Saint Mary, Gate of Heaven established in 1904.
Father Fahey endeared himself to his congregation quickly and dove into many dreams for his parish. He celebrated his Silver Jubilee in 1909 with much fanfare by the parishioners. It was extensively covered in the local papers and much preparation was made to show their devotion to their pastor. A letter was published in the paper as to how they wanted to celebrate this event.
“On April 18, 1909, our esteemed pastor Father Fahey celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination to the sacred priesthood. We deem it fitting on this occasion to unite with him in giving thanks to God for the manifold favors of which he has been the recipient and which enabled him to discharge the onerous duties of priest and pastor, especially during the nine years in our midst. Therefore at this time of his silver jubilee we feel it our duty to join him in his thanksgiving and to tender him some substantial token of our gratitude and esteem for his successful labors among us. We ask your cordial cooperation for the success of this celebration. By united efforts success will be assured.”
It was requested in the Richmond Hill Record newspaper that the residents decorate their homes on April 18 when the jubilee parade would be held.
On that day a solemn high mass was celebrated followed by a grand parade through the streets of Richmond Hill. Included in the parade were the St. John’s Senior Military Band, a uniformed corps of the First New York Regiment of the Knights of Columbus, and a procession of hundreds of parish children marshaled by the Sunday school teachers, followed by male members of the church. Almost every home was decorated, each more elaborate than the last, as though the neighborhood competed with each other to see who would make the grandest display.
Father Fahey reviewed the parade from the rectory’s front porch, which was also decorated for the occasion. He received a bouquet of Flowers from the children, and declared that, although someone suggested that he might someday have charge of a larger and wealthier parish, he desired nothing better than to stay in Morris Park. On April 19 a reception was held at Dauer’s Hall. Thomas McDermott, representing the parish, presented Father Fahey with a purse of $500 in gold.
In October of that year the parish mourned the loss of Thomas Lally, the man who had first petitioned the Bishop for the establishment of the parish and who was also the son in law of Timothy Deehan. He was found drowned in Jamaica Bay and was only 45 years old and left behind a wife and ten children.
In 1910 the parish of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre was rocked to its foundation by a change that forced many to leave. In December of that year Bishop McDonnell carved a new parish out of the original boundaries of the parish. The daughter parish of Holy Child Jesus was founded with Rev. Thomas A. Nummey appointed pastor. It included all that was the original settlement of Richmond Hill extending to Union Turnpike to Atlantic Avenue west of Greenwood Avenue (111th Street) and to Fulton Street east of Greenwood Avenue. Many parishioners of the existing church, Saint Benedict Joseph began to boycott the new church.
This left Father Fahey with only the south part of Morris Park and took away from him nearly all the wealthy Catholics in that part of Queens. It was reported in the local paper that most of the Richmond Hill Catholics refused to desert the old church. Father Nummey had a map prepared and sent it to all the Catholics in the two parishes. The map did not prove efficacious in drawing the Richmond Hill Catholics away from the Morris Park church when Father Nummey had the map printed in the local paper with the following letter: “After due deliberation and with only one object in view – the welfare of souls – the Right Reverend Bishop has assigned to you the task of the erection of a new church. As your spiritual head he has the right to impose this obligation upon you, and as loyal, obedient subjects he expects and it is a duty necessary for salvation to obey him whom the ‘Holy Ghost has appointed to rule the Church of God.’ ‘Let every soul be subject to higher powers, for there is no power but from God, and those that are ordained of ordinance of God. And they that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist purchase damnation to themselves.’ (St. Paul, Rom. XIII. 1 and 2.)
“We naturally expect opposition from those who have no faith, but when it comes from those whose sympathy and encouragement we ought to have, especially in a struggle like ours at present for the mere necessaries of life, to deprive us of the little we should get and sorely need is unkind, disheartening, not Christ-like and selfish. But to oppose a work of this kind is to oppose Jesus Christ.” “He that is not with me is against me. He that gathered not with me scattered.” (Matthew XII., 30).
The following year in 1912 a grand Parish Fair was held at Saint Benedict Joseph and was dedicated to raising money for the completion of a dream that Father Fahey had envisioned many years before, to build a school and convent. The local paper the Richmond Hill Record reported. “The object of the fair is the erection of a parochial school. The congregation hails the advent of this school with delight, and intends to make gigantic efforts to help their beloved pastor, The Rev. P. J. Fahey, in his desire to have the school completed by September 1913.” All the parish societies, as well as most of the parishioners, labored diligently to make Father Fahey’s dream become reality. The children of the parish sold each family bricks for five cents apiece so, according to one parishioner recalling that time, “all the neighborhood owned a brick in Saint Benedict’s school.” Mr. Thomas H. Poole of the Catholic University was the architect and Mr. Frank Doresch, the builder. There were eight classrooms but when opened in September of that year only four rooms we used. On September 8, 1913 the school was opened. The building was not quite finished and the teachers and pupils were put to some inconvenience. The school was staff by the Sister of Saint Joseph, there were four teachers, including the principal Sister M. Alipius. The convent was not completed until the following December and the Sisters traveled everyday from Saint Malachy’s Convent in Brooklyn until their home was ready. Mass was said in their chapel for the first time on December 8, 1913. One of the first teachers at the school was Sister M. Agatha Hurley, whose hand written accounts of that first year is a treasured moment in the archives of Saint Benedict Joseph. “One stormy day we had some trouble getting to school. The Long Island trains were tied up and the Jamaica Trolley was not much better. After about an hour’s time we reached Richmond Hill and walked along Church Street to the school. Occasionally a head popped out looking for us. When they got a glimpse of us a loud cry went up – ‘Here they are!’ – and all were in perfect order on our arrival – Father Fahey was happy to be relieved of his task. He was exhausted.” She also wrote that Father Fahey was so proud of his school that every visitor he had was taken through the classes at any time. We were well inspected.” Later on she would describe with great sorrow the death of her first student, “George Kennedy – who stole a ride on an ice cream truck while on his way to school. On jumping off he slipped and was crushed by the wheels. He died in Mary Immaculate Hospital. All the school children attended the mass and four of his classmates carried his coffin.”
On September 29, 1915, Father Fahey made one of usual pastoral calls. He left his horse and carriage standing in the street. Two little girls climbed into the carriage, and an exceedingly loud toot of an auto horn caused the horse to start to run. Father Fahey returning to the carriage saw the horse start and threw himself at the head of the animal, checking his speed, but being thrown down sustaining a broken arm. The girls escaped injury. The horse was stopped before any further damage had been done. Father Fahey was removed to Saint Mary’s Hospital for treatment.
By 1916 the population of Queens continued to grow and Father Fahey felt that the small wooden church would soon prove inadequate. He began to plan for a new edifice, larger and more substantial and believing in the generous nature of his parishioners he engaged Mr. Thomas Poole once again. As a curate at Saint Cecilia’s, years before, Father Fahey had admired the white marble church that Mr. Poole had designed for that parish. He asked Mr. Poole to reproduce St. Cecilia’s in brick and on a smaller scale. Mr. Doresch was also rehired as the builder. It was decide to move the old wooden church to 117th Street were the old parish Hall/Sunday school once stood and use the building as an auditorium where the young of the parish could give plays and entertainments. Plans for the church were approved in January and Father Fahey hoped that the church would be ready by Christmas.
In June of 1916 the first class graduated from Saint Benedict Joseph School. Father Fahey posed fro a picture with that first graduating class on the steps of the convent. Each girl was required to make their own graduation dress.
In October of 1916 the cornerstone ceremony for the new Romanesque church was held. Bishop McDonnell laid the cornerstone with the assistance of Monsignor McGolrick of Saint Cecilia’s Church and Father Maguire.
Father Fahey’s health began to fail. He never quite recovered the use of his arm due to the accident he had suffered with the runaway horse and carriage and the shock to his nervous system had a serious affect on his once robust constitution. The new church was slowly being built. The country was in the midst of a World War and building materials were difficult to obtain. The long delays preyed on Father Fahey and on July 17. 1917 he died.
He was mourned by all those who knew him. The eulogy was given by his lifelong friend Father Matthew J. Tierney of the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. “Today we have assembled to offer to Almighty God our individual prayers, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, for the repose of the soul of a distinguished Soldier of the Cross, Father Patrick J. Fahey. When Father Fahey in 1900 had succeeded the zealous founder-rector Father Maguire, he looked over a field that was only sparsely settled by Catholics. A few years were necessary to continue the work of organization and stimulation. Such exhausting and unceasing labors could have but one ending, my friends. I affirm that this man’s zeal for the House of God has literally consumed him, has done him to death… as though he had laid his head on the block. His work is done; the busy hands are feebly folded; the eyes closed forever on the world; the lips are mute; the darkened heart is still. For us there remain tears and vain regrets. We mourn him as a true priest of God.”
As a final tribute, his casket was brought into his still uncompleted church to rest for a few moments and then taken to the cemetery.
In September of 1917 the Bishop appointed Father William T. Kerwin the next pastor. He fell to him to complete the church. Due to the war there were considerable delays and the church would not be completed until 1919. A dedication ceremony took place on May 4, 1919. The expense of erecting the new church was $73,000. Most of the old furnishings from the old church, including the altars and rails were moved into the new building until some of the debt could be paid off. Bishop McDonnell dedicated the church and the now elevated Monsignor Maguire gave the sermon.
A few years after Father Kerwin took office Bishop McDonnell passed away on August 8, 1921. He died at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Brentwood. Throughout his life he had shown a great interest in the first parish which he had founded on the opening year of his episcopate. He was succeeded by the Most Rev. Thomas E. Molloy.
In 1922 the daughter parish of Our Lady of the Cenacle was established within the old boundaries of the original parish lines.
On July 11, 1923 Monsignor Maguire passed away. The founder pastor of Saint Benedict Joseph was never forgotten by the congregation. He had continually returned to many of the milestone events that occurred in the early life of the parish.
In 1923 the daughter parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was established within the old boundaries of the original parish lines.
In 1929 the last daughter parish of Saint Teresa was established within the old boundaries of the original parish lines.
Despite the formation of new parishes, Saint Benedict Joseph continued to grow. The school became overcrowded and it was found necessary to renovate the old wooden 1892 church which had been serving as a parish auditorium since 1916 and fit it up as a school annex. This proved to be only a temporary solution and in 1935 Father Kerwin built a third floor to the original school building at a cost of $40,000. The additional floor added four more classrooms. In 1936 the growing staff of sisters meant the enlarging of the convent for a second time.
After years of heart trouble, on February 18, 1937, Father Kerwin passed away. On June 19, 1937, Father Henry M. Hald, associated Superintendent of Schools, former teacher at Cathedral College in Brooklyn, and former pastor of the Church of the Ascension in Elmhurst, assumed the role of pastor.
Upon surveying his new parish Father Hald found a parish with a firm foundation but with buildings that had become inadequate for the growing and thriving parish. It was decided to replace the old wooden church which had become a school annex along with the wooden rectory in one major construction to lessen costs. On July 4, 1938 ground was broken. The old church was razed along with the house of Nora Cronin which was located next to the old rectory and had been bequeathed to the parish. This area would become the site of the new rectory. When the new rectory was completed the priest vacated the old rectory which was demolished. It was upon this site that the Cloister Garden was soon erected.
The cornerstone of the school addition was laid by Monsignor Robinson on the Feast of Christ the King, October 30, 1938; the sermon was preached by the Very Reverend Richard B. McHugh, Rector of Cathedral College, Brooklyn. It was not until September 16, 1939, that the addition was ready. The auditorium was used for the first time on October 11, 1939. The original school building was renovated to make it as much as possible a unit with the new addition. The complete school contained nineteen classrooms, a new auditorium, a large music room, a fully equipped library, principal’s office, medical room, teacher’s rest room, cafeteria, a kindergarten, and two playgrounds.
The rectory provided living quarters for four priests and two domestics. It has two visitor’s rooms, a large meeting room in the basement, and four public rooms in addition to a large foyer. It is connected to the church by means of a cloister. The new building’s cost approximately $275,000. They were designed by Robert J. Reiley and built by Frank Doresch, Inc., who had erected the brick church, the original school and the convent. All structures were designed in the Romanesque style.
On April 14, 1940, Bishop Molloy blessed both school and rectory.
On the occasion of his visit it was noted that the convent chapel was small for the eighteen Sisters. Permission was granted to build a new chapel. The work was carried out in the summer and by winter the new chapel, which could now accommodate thirty was complete.
On September 4, 1940, Father Hald was made a Domestic Prelate with the title of Right Reverend Monsignor by Pope Pius XII. AT a solemn Mass on Sunday, November 17, 1940, the Bishop invested the pastor with the purple robes of his new dignity.
Monsignor Hald noted that in 1942 the Parish would be celebrating its Golden Jubilee and suggested that a fund be started for the purpose of renovating the church. Mr. Robert J. Reiley drew up the plans and the general contract was awarded to Mr. Droesch. Beginning June 23rd, 1941, all church services were held in the auditorium, and the renovation began. The completely refurbished church was opened to the public on December 14, 1941. New marble altars, sanctuary and communion rails, confessionals, tiled aisles, sacristies, heating system, loud speaking system, vestibule, baptistery, and organ were installed. The main focal point was the main altar with a brilliant dossal of silver and gold velvet and carved wooden canopy. There was new baptismal font of solid forest green marble and two beautiful stained glass windows, the gift of the Deehan Family in memory of their father, Timothy the first Trustee and their mother.
December 14th was also the first Sunday that the United States had entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During the war an honor roll was kept of the war heroes from the parish at the altar of the Blessed Mother.
By April of 1945, the reality of peace seemed almost certain. It was at this time Monsignor Hald proposed the creation of a “Peace Monstrance”. “The parish should present something tangible, beautiful and impressive to Almighty God as an act of thanksgiving for peace…Every man, woman and child in the parish will have a part in it. Meanwhile we shall collect jewels for it. If you have a diamond, ruby, emerald, pearl, or any other precious or semi-precious stone which you would like to have set in the ‘sun’ of the monstrance as your personal thank-offering see the pastor…There must be many beautiful stones in the parish that are not being used. They may be set in rings, brooches, stickpins that are no longer in style…Let us make our thank-offering to God rich and beautiful.
The response was overwhelming and the donation of gems poured in. Monsignor Hald did not want he wealthier parishioners to bear the burden of the entire amount for the construction of the monstrance; rather he wanted the entire parish as a whole to participate in its financing. On May 8, 1945, VE Day, Monsignor Hald presented his fund raising plan. “The present plan is to have every adult donate one dollar – no more, no less – every high school student 25cents, every elementary school child and infant, 10 cents. The campaign started on Memorial Day, May 30th, and ended on Independence Day, July 4th. He further added, “Moreover, the offering should be based on sacrifice; for instance, a pack of cigarettes unsmoked, a movie foregone, etc. The will have more spiritual value if it is based on sacrifice. Children may make their offering out of earnings for tasks done around the house.
The monstrance was finished within six months and exhibited on December 2, 1941. “There is only one word to describe it – magnificent. It is glittering with gems, gifts of grateful parishioners. Many of the jewels are heirlooms, and nearly all of them are steeped in memories of loved ones. It is not so much the gold or silver and precious stones of the monstrance that make it so valuable, but the sentiments of the gratitude, appreciation and sorrow that have gone into its making. Nearly every man, woman and child (including infants!) in the parish has contributed to the fund.
The monstrance stands 30 inches tall and weighs 200 ounces. Composed of sterling silver covered with gold plate, it is embellished with numerous precious, semiprecious and synthetic stones. Among these are diamonds, sapphires, topaz, onyx, aquamarine, peridots and rubies. The top of the monstrance is surmounted by a beautiful jeweled cross and below that just under the “sun” is a small figure of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, his arms raised in adoration. Benziger Brothers, Liturgical Art Studio, created the monstrance, but according to Father Joseph Pitsch, a long time curate at St. Benedict Joseph, it was Monsignor Hald himself who actually designed the monstrance. Around the base, the following letters are engraved, The Votive Offering of St. Benedict Joseph Labre Parish in Thanksgiving for Peace, the Safe Return of our parishioners in Service, and in Memory of Those Who Made the Supreme Sacrifice, World War II, 1941 – 1945.”
When the Korean Conflict broke out one of the parish curates, Father William E. Maher returned to service as a chaplain in the army. On September 27, 1951 he and many of his fellow soldiers were killed when their plane crashed into the side of a mountain in Japan, as he was returning from a charitable mission in Korea.
During the 1950’s Monsignor Hald had the Stations of the Cross replaced with mosaics and he began a major campaign to replace the “temporary” stained glass windows in the church. Above the organ loft a series of windows was devoted to the “History of the Catholic Church in America,” with the central life size image of the Mary as the Immaculate Conception. By the side altar of Mary a set of windows illustrated the images of the Holy Rosary. Near the altar of Saint Joseph another set displayed panels on the life of Saint Benedict Joseph. The small lower windows displayed symbols of virtues for all to follow. Above them in the clearstory windows the images of various saints from around the world and above the main altar flanking the niche containing life size statues of the Jesus on the cross with Mary and Saint John a set of windows depicting the archangels.
In 1962 Monsignor Hald was designated as Protonotary Apostolic by Pope John XXIII, which permitted him to use a Bishop’s ring and miter, and offer Pontifical Mass.
After a long illness Monsignor Hald died on March 8, 1966. He had served as pastor for 29 years. The March 17, 1966 Tablet described the Requiem Mass, where, before more than two hundred priests and an overflowing congregation, Bishop McEntegart presided. The eulogy, given at the gravesite by Monsignor Eugene Molloy, concluded, “May God join together in prayer today the voices of all whose lives were elevated by his life and labors – that million children, those thousands of faithful parishioners, those hundreds of priests – in one prayer that through the intercession of Our Blessed Mother and St. benedict Joseph Labre, the good and gentle soul of Monsignor Hald will rest in everlasting peace.”
On June 24, 1966, Father Cornelius C. Toomey, administrator at St. James Pro-Cathedral in Brooklyn, was chosen pastor. He was also the Director of the Diocesan Choristers and his reputation as a musician and choir director were well known. In 1967 he renovated the auditorium so it could be used for a complete sports program for the youth of the parish. Redecorated and refurnished the church, with new flooring under the pews and new sanctuary furnishings and replaced the old organ with the “Monsignor Henry Hald Memorial Organ. A new stained glass window depicting the Last Supper of Christ with his apostles was installed in the niche above the altar, causing the removal of the 1916 statues depicting Christ on the cross flanked by Mary and Saint John. These renovations were done for the Diamond Jubilee of the parish in 1967.
On October 23, 1971, an accidental fire broke out in the priest’s sacristy of the church, which spread quickly along the passageway to the altar boys’ sacristy of the church. Many vestments were completely destroyed, and the intense heat from the fire melted many chalices and other religious articles. Father Toomey’s extensive music collection, the work of many years, was lost as well. I order to clear the smoke from the church, firemen destroyed the stained glass windows in the choir loft that had depicted the History of the Catholic Church in America, and caused water and glass damage to the new organ. Masses were moved to the auditorium and repairs were made. The windows that were destroyed were replaced with different panels depicting various musical instruments.
June 20, 1975 saw the one hundredth class graduated from St. Benedict Joseph School. Later in 1975 Father William O’Leary took over as Administrator. In January 1976, Father O’Leary became pastor and Father Toomey became Pastor Emeritus.
On January 4, 1979 after many years of service Father Toomey passed away peacefully in the rectory.
Later that same year a second fire gutted large portions of the old school building. The principal’s office, the secretarial area and many school records were destroyed. Other rooms on the second and third floor were also heavily damaged. Father O’Leary established a campaign to refurbish the school building and the response was immediate. In May 1980 Father O’Leary celebrated his fortieth year of the priesthood. Later that year, Father Thomas William Hendel, a Queens native who was baptized at Saint benedict Joseph, replaced Father O’Leary, first as administrator and then as pastor. Father O’Leary became Pastor Emeritus. Father Hendel would son become Monsignor Hendel.
In 1988 the school celebrated its 75th anniversary with a school Mass and a parade of the students. In May at a dinner-dance, and later that month at a Mass of Thanksgiving was offered. Many alumni, former teachers and former parishioners attended the celebrations.
Finally on October 18, 1992 the parish celebrated their One Hundredth Anniversary at a Mass of Thanksgiving followed by a Jubilee Dinner-Dance.
HISTORY OF CONGREGATION
“The new pastor (Father Maguire) went bravely to work, visiting the Catholics of his scattered parish. He rented Fielder’s Hall on Jamaica Avenue at the northeast corner of 111th Street in the hamlet of Clarenceville and celebrated the first Mass on July 24, 1892 for a congregation of sixty people, mostly of Irish and German nationality”
The early congregation of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre parish was mostly Irish and German. This was in the later part of the 19th century, the parish records will easily bare witness to this.
Morris Park was more of a working man’s community and was located next to the Morris Park Railroad Shops. The older village of Richmond Hill was at one time a summer garden area with many wealthy denizens coming only for the summer. Many of the homes in that northern area had music rooms, libraries and domestic quarters in their homes.
The creation of Holy Child Jesus parish in 1910, as explained in the newspaper article, removed many of the wealthier parishioners of the church who had resided in the Richmond Hill area of the parish.
Well into the 1980’s the population of the area as well as most of Queens sifted to a very multiethnic culture. The influx of Spanish speaking people rises. They came from all the various countries of Central and South America. There was also an increase in the black population as well.
The largest change within the neighborhood is the population of Shiks from India who have moved into the neighborhood in the 1990’s. Their temple is housed in the former Methodist Episcopal Church of Richmond Hill, one block south of Saint Benedict Joseph Church, and is the largest on the eastern seaboard.
As to the clergy involved in the history of this parish. The influence of Bishop McDonnell and Bishop Molly is noteworthy. Saint Benedict Joseph was the first parish established by Bishop McDonnell. Each pastor held an imprint of their work on the parishioners and in the parish complex of buildings including the church and school. Ranking high among them are Father Maguire, Father Fahey, Monsignor Hald, Father Toomey and Monsignor Hendel. The work of the Sisters of Saint Joseph is also to be honored from the first principal Sister M. Alipius and her staff of sister among whom we point out Sister Mary Agatha Hurley whose letter gives us significant insights into the early life of the school. The sacrifice of Father William Maher who was killed in Japan is also to be made mention. Then we have the numerous vocations of priests, sisters, brothers and deacons who came from our parish.
Among the parishioners Thomas Lally is the earliest. It was he who ventured to petition the Bishop to establish a parish in Morris Park/Richmond Hill. Timothy Deehan was a gentleman farmer and had a farm located at 111th street south of Atlantic Avenue. Mr. Deehan was the first Trustee of the parish and was instrumental in its organization for numerous years. Many have names with our records, baptismal records, wedding certificates, death notices, War Honor Rolls etc. Their names can be found on vestments, chalices and tapestries and on many plaques throughout the parish buildings. Their generous support over the years sustained the parish of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre.
October 8, 1893 – Dedication of Church building – “At the rectory the bishop and attending clergy, vested and formed in procession followed in the wake of the cross-bearer and acolytes to the grand central portal of the church, outside the building. Standing the Bishop repeated in Latin this prayer “Assist we beseech thee O Lord, our actions by the holy inspiration” etc. Then the Bishop began at the antiphon. This was as followed by the chorus chanting the “Miserere.” In the meantime, toward the right, the procession of clergymen proceeded around the exterior of the church, the Bishop sprinkling the walls above and below with holy water.
Since the early infant years of the parish the Catholics were proud to take to the streets of their town. There were numerous articles written newspapers describing processions, parades and rallies held by the parishioners. The description of the Blessed Sacrament held by the pastor under a cloth canopy and followed by a procession of children and parishioners left an impact on the neighborhood.
The parade held in honor of the 25th Jubilee was more of a town event with even the Borough President of Queens at the head of the parade. Rallies were held by the Holy Name Society and were visible as they marched through the streets of Richmond Hill. The Saint Benedict Joseph Baseball Team was watched with eager anticipation in the early 1900’s. The Fairs, Picnics and Theatre Programs attracted all residents of the villages of Morris Park and Richmond Hill and received numerous glowing reviews in the local papers.
The choir and chorus especially under Father Toomey were asked to perform at many city events.
When the clouds were darkened by war, many Societies of the church raised money to send needy supplies to the soldiers at the front. There were ambulances bought with funds raised at parish functions and sent to Europe and overseas displaying the name of our parish during both wars.
The Labre Monthly was published to inform all in the area of the work that the parish was engaged in. Comments were made about the social changes during numerous periods of time and commented on various fades and trends. Humorously remembered was the comments made against the evils of the comic book that so many children had been caught reading.
In the early 1980’s a drive was created not to raise money but to collect memories of the past. An archive was created and many photographs, maps, letters and journals were donated and cataloged. Volumes were filled with mementoes of the past and a complete written history of the parish was created. The numerous artifacts led to the opening of a Parish Museum that celebrated the history of the Parish. A rather unique experience for any parish.
Finally, Saint Benedict Joseph Labre is the only church is the world dedicated to this saint. Upon the visit of Cardinal O’Connor in the 1980’s he commented that if had the opportunity to open a parish he would place it under the patronage of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, the Beggar Saint. He felt that with so many people suffering from the homelessness Saint Benedict Joseph Labre would prove an inspiration.