PROSPECT HEIGHTS — A five-year quest by the Catholic chaplain at LaGuardia Airport to get a religious chapel opened has been grounded by the regional mega-agency that runs one of the nation’s busiest airports.
Father Chris Piasta, pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Jamaica, Queens, has been an airport chaplain since 2010, primarily working at Our Lady of the Skies Chapel at John F. Kennedy International Airport. He also celebrated Mass in a conference room at LaGuardia until that airport began a major renovation of several key terminals.
Father Piasta said he was motivated to pursue the opening of a chapel in Terminal B at LaGuardia by comments made by a since-retired LaGuardia Airport manager who was honored in 2016 at a fundraiser luncheon for Our Lady of the Skies Chapel.
“We honored the previous general manager for LaGuardia, Lysa Scully,” Father Piasta recalled. “And she said, ‘I cannot imagine LaGuardia not having a chapel in the future, it simply escapes my imagination.’ ”
Father Piasta told The Tablet Scully’s comment “wasn’t a promise,” for a chapel at LaGuardia, “but it was promising.”
LaGuardia, like JFK, is managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Port Authority contracted with LaGuardia Gateway Partners to handle construction of the new Terminal B, plus handle operations and maintenance. The $4 billion Terminal B construction project is 80% complete, according to the partners’ website.
Scully, who retired in 2019, referred Father Piasta to LaGuardia Gateway Partners official Marisa Von Wieding.
Father Piasta said Von Wieding told him she was going to suggest to her bosses a spot for the chapel in a “connector” between Terminal B and Delta’s C and D terminals, so it could be accessible to people from both sides.
In a subsequent conversation with Von Wieding in 2019, Father Piasta said she told him: ‘About the chapel, we’re ready to talk.’ ”
Father Piasta said that was the last he heard from anyone about his chapel proposal, until he received a phone call from LaGuardia Gateway Partners denying his request, instead offering a 10-by-20-foot “prayer room” within the project’s 1.3 million square feet of space.
“I was not asking just for a Catholic chapel but something that would be multi-religious so that nobody would be offended,” he said. “I was told it would be just a room in the new terminal. And that room would be very universal to the point that there will be no religious symbols.”
Father Piasta added that LaGuardia Gateway Partners said no religious services would be held there. He recalled they told him: “We can call it a meditation room, silent room, prayer room, but we do not want to call it the chapel, and we do not want to see any regularly scheduled services. Actually, there will be no services over there whatsoever.”
When he asked what would happen if they wanted to hold a service, “they said, ‘Well, then, you’re probably going to be using a completely different facility. … If you want something else, go to Delta.’ ”
Delta Airlines spokesman Morgan Durrant said the airline would “defer on this to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the entity that operates NYC-area airports including LaGuardia.”
Alana Calmi, senior public information officer for the Port Authority, told The Tablet that the agency “declines to comment on this.”
Vincent LeVien, director of external affairs for DeSales Media Group, said he has contacted Port Authority officials to explain “the importance of having a chapel at the newly renovated LaGuardia Airport.”
DeSales Media, owner of The Tablet and NET-TV, is the media, communications, and technology arm of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“What is needed isn’t just for Catholics, but rather a place for all faiths to pray,” LeVien said. “It’s unacceptable that billions were spent to renovate the airport with no plans to create a chapel.
“I also contacted Gov. Hochul’s office to ask that she contact the Executive Director of the Port Authority, Rick Cotton, to advocate for the chapel,” he added. LeVien had not yet received any responses.
Undeterred, Father Piasta said he plans to petition Delta Airlines, headquartered in Atlanta, for space to create a chapel suitable for services for all religions. The airline is handling the renovations of C and D terminals at LaGuardia.
After doing some research, he decided Ed Bastion, CEO of Delta, would be the “go-to person” to contact.
“That’s what was being suggested to me, so that’s what I’m planning on doing,” Father Piasta told The Tablet. “I know people that know [Bastion] quite well, and they say that he might be open to the idea.”
An airport chaplain can offer sacraments, spiritual direction, Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, stress management, assistance for grieving passengers, and Mass for traveling groups.
“We are also dealing with the … personal crises, 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,” Father Piasta said in a 2019 interview.
Airport chapels can occasionally find themselves in the center of turbulence, welcoming families facing global crises, like the recent influx of migrants, or refugees fleeing civil war and climate change.
For many, an airport chapel is their first interaction with faith in New York City, or this country. It serves as a connection of its own, between things figuratively up in the sky, and down on the ground.
Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, whose 35th District in northern Queens encompasses LaGuardia Airport, told The Tablet: “I understand the need for adequate space for actual religious observance for all faiths. I will weigh in with the Port Authority on this issue.”
Officials from LaGuardia Gateway Partners did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Tablet. However, they did issue a statement about the prayer room:
“After consulting with the Interfaith Center of New York, LaGuardia Gateway Partners opted to include a multi-faith meditation room in Terminal B to provide a space for prayer and reflection that is welcoming and inclusive for passengers of diverse religious and secular backgrounds. We look forward to opening the space when we’re able to relax social distancing measures.”
According to its website, the Interfaith Center of New York, founded in 1997, works against prejudice of religions by promoting religious diversity through regular contact and dialog among denominations.
The statement does not indicate whether the partners consulted any airport chaplains or officials at the Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompasses both JFK and LaGuardia airports.
In previous interviews, Father Piasta recounted his interactions with LaGuardia nearly a dozen years ago.
“As a chaplain at Kennedy,” he began, “we occasionally were going over to LaGuardia, predominantly for Ash Wednesday, and I figured, ‘Well, we could probably do something more than that.’ ”
Father Piasta said he approached LaGuardia and started regular services in an unused conference room. He subsequently has been “fully badged as a regular airport worker” for about 10 years, he said.
Father Piasta said he also has the support of airport chaplains of other denominations, adding that he considers them not just colleagues, but friends.
One colleague, Rabbi Ari Korenblit, said that space devoted to spiritual encounters is imperative in modern airports. He agreed LaGuardia should have a facility large enough to hold services.
“Certainly for a world-class airport, like LaGuardia has now become,” Rabbi Korenblit said, “it’s incumbent upon them to be accommodating to the faith communities, no less than Kennedy Airport.”