by Marie Elena Giossi
Russell Basile was barely a teenager when he attended the first Masses of Our Lady of Grace parish inside an Ave. X storefront in Gravesend. On Sunday, Sept. 25, the 87-year-old usher had tears in his eyes as he celebrated the 75th anniversary of the parish that he describes as “my whole life.”
Basile was one of hundreds who attended the closing Mass of the anniversary year. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio was the main celebrant of the liturgy.
Special concelebrants included Father Thomas Leach, pastor; Father Dominick Cutrone, former pastor; Father Edward A. Cassar, parish associate; former parochial vicar, Msgr. Ronald Marino, pastor, Regina Pacis, Bensonhurst; and Father Joseph Grimaldi, pastor, St. Mark’s, Sheepshead Bay. Deacon Jaime Varela, the bishop’s secretary; parish Deacon Philip J. Siani; and seminarian Dwayne Davis assisted on the altar.
Banners displaying the names of more than a dozen parish groups and societies lined the church’s side aisles as Sarah Musolino arrived. Walking down the same aisle she did on her wedding day in 1959 brought back memories. She recalled having her daughter baptized in the church and sending her to the parish school. For many years, she helped at “every fundraiser” from bazaars to card parties.
“I’m thrilled to be here. Just pulling up to the parking lot, my heart started palpitating,” she said.
Jessie Friscione and Angela Camilleri shared in the excitement. The church is what “holds us together,” as individuals, families and community, Camilleri offered. “Our generation moved away. In their place, we have wonderful young people rejuvenating the parish,” she said, noting increased participation of youth in liturgies and the scouting program.
Eight young altar servers led the entrance procession. Server Priscilla Consolo, 17, later shared how nice it was to look into the congregation and “see all the different ages and kinds of people. Some of us have been here 75 years, most of us are younger, but the one thing we have in common is our love for this parish.”
Parishioners, past and present, filled the main worship space as well as the pews left of the altar in the Saints’ Chapel.
Welcoming the congregation, Bishop DiMarzio congratulated the parish on its accomplishments and called upon the intercession of Our Lady of Grace “to keep the mission intact” into the future.
Parish Life Leads to Eternal Life
In his homily, he spoke about conversion and change of heart as constant themes in the Scriptures and essential to eternal salvation. Over eight decades, the bishop said that the people of Our Lady of Grace have come to “know what parish life is about – to help people get to eternal life.”
“The history of this parish is one that has kept that mission clear,” he said.
Only a handful of parishioners can still recall the parish’s first Mass, celebrated Jan. 6, 1935 by Father James Byrnes from Guardian Angel Church, Brighton Beach, in a rented storefront at 349 Ave. X.
Six months later, then-Bishop Thomas E. Molloy sent Father Salvatore B. Cafiero, who had been ordained only seven years, to build a church and serve as pastor for Italian Catholics in this section of Gravesend. When the title “Our Lady of Grace” popped into the priest’s mind while driving in the neighborhood, he knew that should be the name of the church.
In March, 1936, construction began on the worship space, and the church bell, known as “Salvatore,” was blessed. On Sept. 27, Father Cafiero celebrated the first Mass in the new church, dedicated by Bishop Molloy on Nov. 15. Confirmation was conferred on 908 parish children.
A rectory and convent buildings were acquired and Pallotine Sisters moved into the parish. By 1940, an extension was added to the church.
At that time, the world watched as World War II unfolded. The parish sent 3,000 men to war; 33 never returned. Stained-glass windows were dedicated in their memory July 4, 1946.
In 1952, the parish school opened under the Pallotine Sisters’ supervision, and it continues to go strong. School children joined parishioners at the dedication of an outdoor Shrine of Our Lady of Grace during the 1954 Marian Year.
For the parish faithful, it was the end of an era when the beloved Msgr. Cafiero died. After his death, a monument was erected in his honor on the front lawn and the parish playground was dedicated in his memory.
In the years that followed, under the leadership of Father Dominic Sclafani, the second pastor, the church, school, rectory and convent underwent renovations.
Further renovations to the main altar, the creation of the perpetual adoration chapel and Saints’ Chapel, and the addition of handicapped accessible facilities were late made during the pastorate of Father Cutrone.
Now in its eighth decade, Father Leach is leading the parish through the diocesan pastoral planning process and ensuring its financial footing.
He seeks to create a spirit of collaboration, develop lay leadership and evangelize the community, which is becoming increasingly non-Christian. The parish remains largely Italian, though most live outside the area, and has some Hispanic, Indian and Filippino families. Positive growth is happening; this year, altar server ministry hit a new record with 34 boys and girls.
Both the history and present were evidence to the bishop that the parish “continues to bring the Good News and prepares young people in the faith so that they may have eternal life.”
Bishop DiMarzio reminded parishioners that all they say and do “must be geared toward eternal life, which is Jesus Christ.”
Father Leach offered words of thanks to all present. He noted that it was a testament to the past that the parish has achieved 75 years and “the challenge,” he said, “is to pass the faith onto the next generation.”
Following Mass, more than 370 guests gathered for a dinner-dance at Russo’s on the Bay. Parishioners stood in awe of an artistic rendition of the church, comprised of the names of clergy, religious and active parishioners from 1935 to present day, created by former parishioner Margaret Webster-Shapiro. Guests also relived parish history through a video presentation, created by John Grande, and scrapbooks, designed by Elizabeth DiMola.
Plaques for distinguished service were awarded to parishioners Mary Ann De Luca and Nunzio Cerrano, and local businesses, Cuccio’s Bakery and Bake City Bagels.
De Luca chaired the dinner, and was part of the 20-person event-planning committee for the anniversary year.
She became involved in the parish in 1989 through the Catholic Young Adult Community and stayed because of the encouragement she received from the late Sister Jane Talbot, R.S.M., pastoral minister.
“I think of Our Lady of Grace as a big family – a lot of great people, a lot of love … a lot of spirit,” said De Luca, who looks forward to the 100th anniversary in 2035.
Pastors at Our Lady of Grace
Msgr. Salvatore Cafiero, 1935-69
Msgr. Dominic Sclafani, 1970-82
Father Dominick Cutrone, 1983-2001
Father Thomas Leach, 2001-present