By Rita Piro
The airplane hangar of a major international airport is not often considered the ideal place for a Mass. Neither is the baggage claim area the preferred location for spiritual counseling nor is security checkpoint rarely desired as the place for a blessing.
For Father Chris Piasta, however, ministering in these locations is nothing unusual.
As the full-time chaplain of Our Lady of the Skies Catholic Chapel at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Father Piasta serves a congregation of 50,000 airport workers and cabin crews as well as the more than 60 million travelers who pass through the airport each year.
“Being an airport chaplain is different from any other ministry,” says Father Piasta, a diocesan priest who has served in this role since 2010. “We call it the Ministry of Presence. It is not necessarily what I do at the actual chapel or in the office, but what I can do on my feet as I make my way around the nearly 5,000 acres of JFK Airport.”
A native of Katowice, Poland, Father Piasta attended The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. After his ordination in 1995, he served first in Germany, then in the United States in mainly campus ministry and youth group positions. A connection with Msgr. John Strynkowski, former rector of St. James Cathedral, Downtown Brooklyn, brought Father Piasta to the Diocese of Brooklyn. His first assignment was St. Anastasia parish, Douglaston, before being named pastor of St. Joseph’s, South Jamaica, where he also resides.
Airports, especially large international hubs such as JFK, are like mini- cities complete with restaurants, banks, stores, health services, fire departments, police stations, post offices and much more.
“The airport workers are my main congregation,” said Father Piasta. “I visit them on a daily basis. It is workplace pastoral care. Many of the airport workers have closer contact with me than with their own pastors and parish.”
No two days are ever alike at the airport. Mass is offered in the chapel five days a week including a 5 p.m. Vigil on Saturday and at 12:45 p.m. on Sunday. Each day Father Piasta does a sweep of the airport – meaning he walks the entire complex, checking in with people he knows, seeing where he can be of service, whether with an airport employee, a pilot, cabin crew member or a passenger.
“You become very astute about non-verbal language,” he explains, “and often my attention is brought to passengers, actual strangers, who have a special need. These people feel comfortable talking with me because they are anonymous and have nothing to lose.”
Airport employees are known for their unusual and often inconvenient schedules and Father Piasta is cognizant of bringing the Church to them.
Experiencing the Church
“This chaplaincy allows these people to experience the Church at a good time for them, during their lunch breaks, coffee breaks, and allows me to respond to their needs, quickly and effectively, right where they are without an appointment,” he said.
“Often that means going to where the workers are such as the firefighters and the police officers. I have said Mass right at their stations as they are not able to leave their posts. With the exception of ordinations, I have administered or celebrated every sacrament at the chapel and we have an active RCIA program.”
“While airport chaplains are trained to deal with large crisises such as plane crashes, we are also dealing with the smaller crisis, and personal crisis in people’s lives, such as financial aid, loss of documents enabling them to return home, homelessness and even death notices of people who have died in flight or, on the other hand, a passenger who has lost a spouse or child or parent while they are en route on a flight,” he added.
When volcanic ash shut down European airspace in 2010, stranding several hundred passengers at the airport for nearly a week, Father Piasta organized a band of volunteers that provided food, including authentic NYC bagels and cream cheese, fresh clothing, laptops to check emails and help with refilling medications.
“These types of things are not as often seen by parish priests,” said Father Piasta. “Every day when I go to the airport, I don’t know whom I am going to see or what I am going to see, which is very challenging. It makes me very happy that I can provide these people with help. It humbles me in terms of what God provides and how God uses each us to spread the Gospel and live the mission of Christ.”
The familiar green and white signs all along the Belt Parkway and Van Wyck Expressway directing drivers to and from John F. Kennedy International Airport have been a part of the Queens landscape for more than five decades.
“JFK,” as it is commonly known, is the only U.S. airport with separate chapels dedicated to the four largest world faiths, Roman Catholic, Christian, Jewish and Islam. Seventeen other U.S. airports designated among the top 30 busiest maintain a non-denominational, interfaith chapel.
The erection of a freestanding chapel for airport workers and their families was the personal mission of Bob O’Brien, Jim Schiebel, Ray Schiebel and Bill Lanning, four U.S. Customs agents working at the airport after serving in World War II. Together they organized The Catholic Guild and fundraising for the chapel began in 1953 under the direction of Msgr. Ronald McDonald of the Brooklyn Diocesan Building Office.
Dedicated in honor of Our Lady of the Skies, the chapel opened in 1955 when the airport was still known as Idlewild Airport (named for the golf course and clubhouse that once occupied the location on which the airport was built).
In 1966, airport expansion necessitated the demolition of this chapel and a second, much larger chapel took its place.
At this same time, separate chapels were also erected for the Protestant and Jewish faiths. The three chapels stood side- by-side over a man-made lagoon on the outskirts of the airport.
Stained Glass Windows
In its second incarnation, Our Lady of the Skies featured magnificent 30 foot stained glass windows on each side. An 18-foot bronze statue of the Blessed Mother standing atop a propeller hung over the altar. The chapel was served by the priests of nearby Christ the King parish, Springfield Gardens. Each weekend offered 10 Mass times including those at 8 p.m. and midnight to accommodate both airport workers and travelers.
A frequently requested wedding site, Our Lady of the Skies saw nearly 200 couples joined in Holy Matrimony each year, mostly airport workers and their families.
Further airport expansion forced the demolition of all three houses of faith in 1988, replaced with one room chapels on the fourth floor of Terminal 4 at the airport. A fourth room was added in recent years to serve as an Islamic mosque.
The present Our Lady of the Skies Chapel was dedicated on Aug. 14, 2002 by Bishop Thomas V. Daily and is equipped with a new statue of Our Lady of the Skies made in Oberammergau, Germany, and a chalice donated by Pope Paul VI, which was used by the Pope to celebrate the Mass for Peace at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 4, 1965.
The present chapel also features several pieces from the original second chapel including the lectern and two panels of the original stained glass windows.
Original windows have also been used in the rebuilt St. Mary Magdalene Church, Springfield Gardens, and in the recently constructed Our Lady of the Snows parish, N. Floral Park.
The three remaining original stained glass windows are slated for use in the much anticipated new chapel at LaGuardia Airport which is planned for 2020.
Our Lady of the Skies Airport Chaplains: