From the immigrant who arrived last week to the families that trace their roots back several generations, the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help has been a welcoming beacon of faith in Sunset Park for 125 years.
“We’re very honored to be here at this moment in history,” said Redemptorist Father James Gilmour, who arrived as pastor two years ago.
It is a moment marked by great diversity in a dynamic community of cradle Catholics and converts – and those curious about the faith – from different parts of the world.
As Church, the parish and its priests strive to “be creative all the time,” said Father Gilmour. “Pope Francis calls us to that as missionary disciples – to be always creative in preaching the Gospel and serving people.”
In practice, that means going out into the neighborhood, and reaching those “on the margins that need somebody to just say hello, listen in a non-judgmental way and let them know they can renew their relationship with God.”
Building the Church In Brooklyn
A desire to help people grow closer to God is what drew the Redemptorists to Brooklyn in 1892. The borough and diocese were growing rapidly and the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province wanted to help build up the Church.
In November of that year, Brooklyn Bishop Charles E. McDonnell arranged for the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer to establish a new parish, carved from the boundaries of Our Lady of Angels and St. Michael churches. The Redemptorists purchased an entire city block for their new parish, bordered by 59th and 60th Streets and by Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
On Easter Sunday, April 2, 1893, the first Mass was celebrated in a home on 54th Street and Fourth Avenue with about 40 people present.
The cornerstone of the first church was laid that October, and the parish had grown to 85 families. Three months later, on Jan. 14, 1894, Bishop McDonnell dedicated a wooden frame church in honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, to whom the Redemptorists have a special devotion. An icon of the Marian patroness was later enthroned in the church, and a perpetual novena was begun that continues to this day.
Brooklyn soon became part of the City of New York, and the rural area around the church saw the arrival of a trolley and new families. The church grew to nearly 5,000 parishioners, prompting the 1903 opening of the parish school, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood.
Construction on the current church began in 1907. Made of granite with an 1,800-person seating capacity, the lower church opened on Easter Sunday, April 11, 1909. Almost two decades passed before the upper church opened in December, 1928.
Also added to the parish grounds were a rectory, convent and a high school, which was run by the Sisters of St. Joseph from 1956 until 1999.
The elementary school reached its peak in the 1950s and ’60s when nearly 40 sisters were teaching more than 2,500 children.
Sister Mary Sivillo, C.S.J., was a first-grade teacher from 1966 to 1969, when there were five first-grade classes.
“In my last class here, I had 58 students,” she said. “They were all wonderful. It was a wonderful experience being here. I loved the children. I loved the parents.”
She said there was also a “great collaboration” with the Redemptorists at the parish. “The priests were very available to us (Sisters). They always came over to the school and visited the children,” she said.
That collaboration continues today even though the school is no longer a “parish school,” but rather operates under an academy model, run by a board. There are 240 students in nursery through grade eight.
“We get a lot of spiritual help and guidance from the parish,” said Margaret Tyndall, principal. “The priests are wonderful: they come over, they interact with the children … (and) even the teachers.”
What attracted Tyndall to this community, and the reason she has stayed at the school for more than a decade, she said, is the sense of belonging. “OLPH is a very multicultural community so entwined with the spirituality that God intended for us. It doesn’t matter what we look like or sound like – we are one.”
One Community of Faith
That solidarity as a community of faith has been attracting people to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church since it was founded.
Early parishioners were Irish and Norwegian, and then Polish and Italian. Puerto Rican immigrants in the 1950s and ’60s came with their language and culture, paving the way for other Spanish-speakers from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Ecuador. Devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help has also brought Haitian, West Indian and Filipino faithful to the parish.
The latest wave of immigrants has been from China, and following close behind them are newcomers from Vietnam.
“Although it (the parish) looks different today, the premise is still the same: Let’s welcome you with open arms whatever your nationality. Let’s support you and help you – help your family, help the community,” said Mary Beth Brolly, class of 1984, and a third-generation parishioner. “It’s what this parish has done for generations.”
Brolly‘s grandparents experienced that same welcome and support in the parish when they emigrated from Ireland. “This is where they found everything – love, friendship and most importantly, love for God,” she said.
Though her family moved out of the neighborhood 30 years ago, she still returns regularly for Mass.
“This parish means everything to me,” Brolly said. “It’s where I fell in love with God. It’s where I learned to be kind to other people. It’s where I learned to give back to the community. It’s where I learned about family.”
“We Remember, We Celebrate, We Believe,” is the theme of the jubilee year, which opened this fall. Festivities began with an International Day in September. Auxiliary Bishop James Massa was the main celebrant of a multicultural Mass, which featured a display of 20 flags representing parishioners’ nations of origin.
Former parishioners and alumni returned for a homecoming Mass and dinner dance in October. Father John McKenna, C.Ss.R., class of 1965, welcomed fellow alumni back home.
“Home is where we belong,” he said. “Home is the place and the people who have loved us, who have shaped our lives, who have given us a solid foundation for the rest of our lives. So, welcome home.”
Parishioners past and present were pleased to see Father Patrick Woods, C.Ss.R., class of 1963, the main celebrant of the Alumni Mass, and Father John Murray, C.Ss.R., class of 1961, who preached the homily. More than a dozen priests concelebrated the liturgy.
Among the multicultural and intergenerational congregation were the Brentwood Sisters of St. Joseph; faculty and students from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Academy; and current parishioners, who are largely of Latino and Chinese descent.
“One hundred twenty-five years is a long, long time,” Father Murray said. “The spirit of our faith has never been diminished here. I would say it’s more lively now than when I was growing up.”
Evidence of that liveliness, he offered, can be found in the vibrant practice of faith today: Mass attendance and reception of the sacraments, active ministries and ongoing community outreach.
Every weekend, the parish offers 13 Masses in four languages – English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese. Sacraments are celebrated regularly and in the month of September alone, there were five weddings, 14 baptisms and about three funerals a week.
The parish is proud to have 630 young people in its religious education program, and 74 adults moving through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process.
Father Murray noted that the parish offers immigration services in its Juan Neumann Center, feeds 200 families through the food pantry every month, hosts a Chinese senior citizen group and leases space for the community’s benefit to Lutheran Medical Center and a universal pre-k program.
“OLPH is still vibrant and alive, and still young,” Father Murray told the faithful, including children from the academy and parish youth choir who led the congregation in singing the novena hymn to their Mother of Perpetual Help.
Singing along was Tony “Red” Humphreys, an alumnus who moved out of the neighborhood in the early 1960s. Visiting the school and attending Mass with his son brought back fond memories, especially of the good sisters who taught him to read, write and even dance.
“My first-grade teacher, a nun of course, taught me how to do the waltz” for a class play, he explained. “Up and down the aisle, she taught me to do the waltz. It was a great experience the whole eight years.”
Plans for future anniversary events include a renewal of marriage vows for parish couples, a block party, a day of reflection for men and women religious and a closing celebration next fall.
Redemptorist Superiors of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Father Augustine Mcinerney, 1893-94
Father John B. Daily, 1894-1904
Father John F. Frawley, 1904-12
Father Thomas Galvin, 1912-15
Father James Barron, 1915-21
Father John J. O’Leary, 1921-24
Father Francis Gallagher, 1924-30
Father Charles Crowe, 1930-33
Father Joseph Downey, 1933-36
Father John Sephton, 1936-42
Father George Conway, 1942-47
Father John Keegan, 1942-47
Father Joseph Breslin, 1947-53
Father Augustine Aylward, 1953-59
Father John Renehan, 1959-64
Father James Ferris, 1964-69
Father James Lover, 1969-75
Father Thomas Joyce, 1975-80
Father James O’Blaney, 1981-84
Father John McGowan, 1984-90
Father Francis Browne, 1990-96
Father Kevin Moley, 1996-2002
Father Sean McGillicuddy, 2002-08
Father Joseph Tizio, 2008-15
Father James Gilmour, pastor, 2015-present
Father Robert Harrison, rector, 2015 – 2016
Father Francis Mulvaney, rector, 2016- present