PARKCHESTER — A 121-year old structure on the campus of St. Helena’s Parish, which has served many roles in this Bronx neighborhood, is once again helping the faithful in the community after its church was recently damaged.
Built in 1901, the “Green Building” (nicknamed as such due to its color) was a tavern before it was bought for the parish in the late 1930s. Mass was celebrated there in the early 1940s while the neo-Romanesque-style church was built.
Now, it’s a chapel once again, following an electrical fire that swept through the sacristy on Dec. 26, pumping acrid smoke into the church and the parish school, which are all connected.
St. Helena’s has livestreamed Masses in English, French, and Spanish since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020. Now, they’re broadcast from the makeshift chapel in the Green Building, which is across the parking lot from the main church.
Father David Powers, the pastor since 2015, said it will take at least two months of intense cleaning and repairs before Mass can be celebrated again inside the main church. Until then, he assured, the Lord’s work continues.
“We have created a chapel in what at one time was our church in 1940 and 1941,” Father Powers said following Mass on Jan. 4. “It’s almost like going full circle. [But] I don’t think the location is as important as the people who come.”
Father Powers quoted the promise made by Jesus in Matthew 18:20.
“ ‘Where two or more are gathered together in my name, I am present,’ ” Father Powers recited in a booming voice that rose above the racket caused by the No. 6 train rumbling over nearby Westchester Avenue.
“God is present in our beautiful big church that seats 1,200 people, and God is present in this room that seats 24 people,” he added. “And we can still feel the presence of our Lord. We feel the faith. We feel the love of God for each and everyone.”
The Smoke Took a Tour
Firefighters traced the blaze to an electrical panel in the sacristy, Father Powers said. It was first noticed around 8:30 p.m. after the Mass celebrated in French for parishioners of West African heritages.
Brother Christian Santiago immediately called 911. New York Fire Department’s Engine 64/Ladder 47 on Castle Hill Avenue arrived within minutes, Father Powers said.
“I have to give them a lot of credit,” he added. “It was a six-alarm fire. It took one hour to fully extinguish. But the fire department got here early enough.”
Father Powers explained that the church, the rectory, and the school are connected because the building’s designers planned for easy access from one section to the next during inclement weather. They also created robust “containment walls” to keep a fire from spreading.
“And it worked,” he said, “because the fire itself was limited to half of the sacristy. But the smoke, on the other hand, decided it was going to take a tour all through the building.
“It went into the school and went down into the gym. And that is what we are dealing with right now. A lot of the particulate matter is still there, so it requires a cleaning from top to bottom.”
But while reclamation work in the main church could last at least two months, the school is expected to reopen in about two weeks.
Meanwhile, the 308 pre-K through eighth-grade students are back to remote learning, just as they did when the pandemic began, Father Powers said.
A crew of numerous reclamation specialists was busy at work inside the building on Jan. 4. Father Powers said scaffolding would be brought in later so that the work could reach the high ceilings of the church.
The repair work is covered by insurance, the pastor said. He estimated that “When you put everything together, you’re going to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Father Powers noted that while insurance covers structural repairs, the parish will have to purchase new altar linens and other items on its own. Also, the school might have to replace instructional materials. To that end, the school’s alumni are planning a GoFundMe page, although details were unavailable on Jan. 4.
Also, Father Powers said, plans are underway for a benefit concert in April to raise funds to help the church and school rebound from the blaze.
Parishioners have not missed a single Mass since the fire, Father Powers said. About 250 people turned out for a Spanish Mass on Sunday, Jan. 2. The congregation obviously was too big for the Green Building chapel, so the parking lot became the venue.
Father Powers said the shift to livestreaming Mass during the pandemic conditioned parishioners to pursue their faith under difficult circumstances.
“Being Catholic means you have to be flexible,” he said. “During this whole pandemic, we have gone to livestreaming, we’ve changed locations, we’ve gone to social distancing. We have done what was necessary to keep people safe.”
But the staff has also kept the congregation nourished, said one worshiper following the Jan. 4 Mass.
Suzanne Piscitelli said she is not a registered member of St. Helena’s, but she connected with the parish during the pandemic because of its ample seating accommodations that enhanced social distancing.
She also has difficulty walking, so being able to drive into a designated parking lot was a huge benefit.
She has since become friends with parishioners and the staff, especially Father Powers and Father Richard Wyzykiewicz, the parochial vicar. Both are members of the Piarists Order of priests.
Piscitelli noted people find a “safe haven” at the parish, where they can pray for spiritual guidance and healing so vital during the pandemic. She marveled how a small classroom space in the Green Building was quickly converted into a chapel for Mass.
“I’m registered at St. Mary’s — Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Mount Vernon, so my heart is in two places,” she said. “But, I am blessed to come here during the pandemic because, under the guidance and tutelage of Father David, I have grown spiritually.
“With sour apples, Father David and Father Richard are making sweet applesauce.”