By Michael Rizzo
BAYSIDE — Ask Father Peter Rayder what he credits for his return as pastor to American Martyrs parish in Bayside, Queens — after spending six weeks in a coma — and his answer is emphatic: “It was the power of prayer.”
Not his own prayers, he says, but those of his family, friends, and especially his parishioners.
Father Rayder was the main celebrant of Mass for a large congregation at American Martyrs on April 30, the first time since his return, and also offered the sacrament of first holy Communion. Earlier in April, he concelebrated Palm Sunday and Triduum Masses and, on April 26 presided over the liturgy for a small weekday congregation.
The 63-year-old Belle Harbor native told The Tablet that he is feeding off his parishioners’ faith in his recovery. On Palm Sunday, he asked those in the church, “Do you believe in miracles?” citing sportscaster Al Michaels’ phrase about the 1980 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team.
“I told them, ‘Your prayers performed a miracle and I’m proof of that miracle,’ ” Father Rayder recalled. “I was trying to say that a sign has been shown to us, and I’m that sign through their faith.”
In October 2021, during heart surgery, Father Rayder suffered kidney failure and a collapsed lung. He was put in a medically induced coma. Just before Thanksgiving he awoke but faced extensive rehabilitation. He had lost 90 pounds. While in rehab, he contracted COVID-19.
The tracheotomy that had helped him breathe during his hospitalization affected his vocal cords; as a result, his voice remains hoarse. He now uses a cane or a rolling walker with a seat because of continuing weakness in his legs.
In February 2022 he began to recuperate at his sister’s home in Florida before returning to American Martyrs in early April.
“I got my priesthood back,” he said. “I think of what I’ve gone through and am overwhelmed with joy and thankfulness to be given another opportunity.”
“I want to be able to celebrate Mass with the people on a regular basis,” he added. “That’s going to be my goal. The power of the Eucharist will make that happen.”
The pastor expressed sadness for things he lost while he was incapacitated. He was unable to be there to support a friend when his mother died. He also mentioned giving up his dog Askem to his nephew after the pastor accidentally tripped over the pet in the rectory in early April and realized the chance for further injuries was too great.
One thing he looks forward to is walking the neighborhood around American Martyrs again to “meet people where they are.” He said his outlook will be different now.
“I see how blessed I am,” he said, “and this has made me more aware of the handicaps others have and to pray for them.”
Father Rayder praised Deacon Stan Galazin, who became the parish’s Temporary Administrator in the pastor’s absence, parish Business Manager Patricia Adams and Coordinator of Religious Education Theresa Asche for their work. He added that his happiness was in knowing their dedication continued the work of the parish.
Before Mass began, Michael Chimenti, the leader of song at American Martyrs, said the parish support for their returning pastor was extraordinary.
“You never saw so many people come together to pray for one thing,” he said. “Everybody participated. There were novenas and prayers at Sunday Masses.”
The cantor said that earlier in April, Father Rayder asked Chimenti to privately sing the Christmas hymn “Jesu My Baby” to him after a Sunday liturgy.
“He loves that song and told me he felt Christmas didn’t happen for him because of his illness,” Chimenti remembered.
During Mass, Father Rayder sat in his rolling walker while distributing the Eucharist to the nine children receiving the sacrament for the first time. Later he used his cane so he could stand outside in a group photo with the new communicants atop the church’s front entrance steps.
“The fact that he’s here is God’s greatest gift,” Theresa Asche said.” She added that a pastor’s participation in the Communion is the most important part of the liturgy. “I’ve been preparing the children for months that Father Rayder would be here, and I told them their prayers worked.”
Arlene Tomelden’s 8-year-old daughter Skyler was one of those children.
“He’s proof that prayers work,” Tomelden said of Father Rayder. She added that a family member of hers was also going through health issues and she now felt even more fervently that praying gives you strength to get through life’s struggles.
After Mass, the pastor called it a wonderful feeling to be the celebrant once again. Then, like a good shepherd, his thoughts went to his flock.
“These kids bring the life of Christ to us,” he said. “Let us hope for a beautiful future for the Church through them.”