On the feast day of their patron saint, parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi, Astoria, exuded joy as they celebrated their parish’s 85th anniversary.
The anniversary Mass on Oct. 4 began with a procession of the parish’s 23 societies and ministries marching into the church. There, over 400 parishioners waited for the Mass celebrated by Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
St. Francis of Assisi Church “is great symbol in Astoria of the presence of the Church,” Bishop DiMarzio said in his homily. “This is a beautiful, kind of country church. It feels very cozy. It is not so big like the Basilica of Assisi, but this is a church of St. Francis where we can find the Franciscan spirit.”
The parish’s history began in October of 1930, when Msgr. Joseph Schaeffner, St. Francis of Assisi’s first pastor, obtained permission to build another church in Astoria. Before the church was completed, 500 faithful attended Mass in the Continental Hall on Steinway St. Bishop Thomas E. Molloy dedicated the upper church in 1931.
“I’m grateful for the wisdom of the founders for allowing us to get together and worship in this beautiful church,” said Msgr. Ralph Maresca, who has been pastor of St. Francis of Assisi for 10 years. “You can see the spirit of St. Francis reflected in the lives of the people of this parish. They have a deep faith and appreciation for all gifts of life.”
Maria Kyriakopoulos, the president of the Home-School Association at St. Francis of Assisi School, and co-chair of the anniversary committee, said she was elated to celebrate this parish milestone.
“My mother told me, ‘Whenever you move, you find a good parish.’ I moved from Brooklyn and I’m raising three children. This parish is a great foundation,” she said. “The sense of community is unbelievable … St. Francis is a huge, huge family.”
Parishioners celebrated 85 years of parish life by asking for St. Francis’ intercession. The parish’s Italian choir, English choir and children choir sung hymns that included the “Prayer of St. Francis,” “Christ Be Our Light,” “Ti Ringrazio” and a “Franciscan Medley.” Father Emilio Salerno, the parish’s previous pastor, was among the priests concelebrating the Mass.
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Giving his homily in English and Italian, Bishop DiMarzio meditated on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, calling him “one of the greatest saints ever to live” because he conformed his life to Christ in a way that few others have done.
St. Francis of Assisi, the bishop said, understood that the work of the order he started was to repair God’s Church by preaching to the people, so they could rebuild their lives and come back to Christ.
“Our mission as we follow Francis, is to preach to others about our love of God,” he said. “Francis witnessed Christ’s presence in his life and we too must do the same.”
The bishop also mentioned Pope Francis, who visited New York last month in an apostolic visit, saying that the pope chose that name because he wanted to live in the spirit of St. Francis, “a spirit of poverty and humility and above all a spirit of Jesus Christ.”
Nancy Annunziata, co-chair of the anniversary committee and a teacher at St. Francis of Assisi School for over 20 years, said she was touched by the bishop’s words on the life of the famous saint.
“I was raised in St. Francis and received all my sacraments here. I was married here, my mother was married here, my daughter was married here,” she said. “It’s a place where faith and community really mix together.”
The Hales, who have been parishioners of St. Francis for 52 years, agreed.
“I can’t imagine not being a parishioner of St. Francis,” said Martin Hale, who was one of the honorees to be recognized at a celebratory dinner that evening.
Following the Mass, parishioners brought pets for the blessing of the animals by Bishop DiMarzio in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for God’s creation.
“I think it’s great to bless the animals because they are like family,” said Antoinette Ormaza, who brought her family’s 13-year-old pug.
The bishop prayed for the pets by the parish’s lawn and sprinkled them with holy water, extending his hands to offer individual blessings to some of them. “Go in peace and take care of these animals,” he said to the pets’ owners.
At the end of the celebrations, Msgr. Maresca said he was grateful for the many blessings God continues to bestow on the parish, from the spiritually uplifting Mass with the bishop to the shining sun that came out during the animal blessing.
“Now, we look forward to the next 85 years as we continue to witness the Gospel message and try, as St. Francis said, to be instruments of Christ’s peace,” he said.