Diocesan News

LaGuardia Chapel Stalled After Moment Of Optimism

Walkthrough to approve new airport space canceled twice

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — What appeared to be a moment of optimism regarding proposed spaces for religious services at the renovated LaGuardia Airport has turned into more uncertainty.

In October, The Tablet broke the story of how the proposed chapel was removed from the LaGuardia Airport renovation plans by developers.

Multiple postponements of a key step in an approval process — a “walkthrough” conducted by staffers for Gov. Kathy Hochul — are holding up things.

The governor’s office wants to confirm the suitability of the designated “interreligious” spaces for prayer or services, like a Catholic Mass, according to Catholic airport chaplain Father Chris Piasta.

[Related: St. Louis Airport Chaplains Cheer Efforts to Create Chapel at LaGuardia]

The walkthrough was postponed twice. The first, scheduled for Feb. 2, was canceled due to a snowstorm. Father Piasta said the second visit, scheduled for Feb. 23, was postponed without any reason given and he hasn’t heard yet about a new date.

The governor’s office told Vincent LeVien, Director of External Affairs for the diocese, last week that they were still working with the Port Authority to accommodate a visit from the governor’s staff regarding the proposed space and asked for patience as they make final arrangements.

A spokesman for the governor’s office told The Tablet, “I can confirm for you that we are in the process of scheduling the meeting and are working on the logistics to make it a reality.”

According to Father Piasta, he and fellow chaplain, Rabbi Ari Korenblit, met in mid-January with Port Authority officials and representatives of Delta Airlines after The Tablet first reported the story. The officials were willing to figure out a way to accommodate the chaplains, Father Piasta said.

That meeting resulted from the governor’s staff learning late last year about the chaplains’ request. Subsequently, Gov. Hochul directed all the stakeholders to meet and find a solution.

Father Piasta became hopeful that the chapel would finally become a reality.

“I feel optimistic,” he said, “because at the meeting we came to an agreement, and that was the plan. So I believe that this is what is going to happen.”

The plan, however, does not include an actual chapel. Instead, Delta Airlines, which is reconstructing Terminals C and D into one terminal, agreed to explore allocating a conference room past security where clergy of various religions can hold services, or passengers can go to pray.

Port Authority officials told The Tablet they have offered to provide another conference room for chaplains in the Central Hall before TSA checkpoints. This arrangement is part of negotiations with operators who would run the Central Hall for the Port Authority, according to officials.

Meanwhile, LaGuardia Gateway Partners, the company that renovated Terminal B, and continues to operate it, already built a 10-by-20-foot “meditation” room that has not officially opened because of COVID-19 restrictions.

And although Father Piasta is eager for the walkthrough, he knows all these developments are a far cry from just a few years ago, when he asked for a chapel in the renovated LaGuardia, but was instead offered the meditation room in Terminal B. As The Tablet reported in October, Father Piasta was told by a representative from LaGuardia Gateway Partners that there would be no religious services allowed in that room. The rep suggested he talk to Delta officials to see if something could be arranged in its renovated terminals.

Father Piasta said he planned to contact Delta all along, but that his duties as a chaplain at JFK Airport and pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Jamaica, Queens, took precedence.

Fast forward to late 2021 when a former JFK chaplain, Deacon Tom Reilly, wrote an email to Delta CEO Ed Bastion on an unrelated issue. Deacon Reilly added a footnote that not accommodating his former colleagues at LaGuardia might be a missed opportunity for Delta customers and other passengers at the airport.

“Your planned refurbishment at LGA might be our last opportunity to include this important enhancement for LGA,” Deacon Reilly wrote to Bastion. “Would you consider this possibility? Space requirements would be minimal, but the benefit to travelers, Delta and LGA employees, which is provided regularly at airports throughout the world, would be powerful.”

When contacted last week by The Tablet, a Delta Airlines spokesperson deferred to the Port Authority.

Bastion, however, liked Deacon Reilly’s idea, according to a response to the former chaplain’s email that has been shared with The Tablet.

Deacon Reilly, who was from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, currently lives in the Chicago area but keeps in contact with Father Piasta. “Thanks for raising the issue of a chapel,” Bastion wrote to Deacon Reilly. “I’m forwarding your note to Ryan [Marzullo] who leads our LGA and JFK builds. … I do agree it would be great if we can accommodate.”

Deacon Reilly and Marzullo both attended the meeting in mid-January. Also there was Patty Ornst, Delta’s managing director of state and local government affairs.

Representing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were Jessica Forse, project executive at LaGuardia, and Hersh Parekh, director of government and community relations.

Father Piasta shared an email Marzullo sent after the meeting to him, Deacon Reilly, and Rabbi Korenblit.

In it, Marzullo talked about how “Delta will work on developing an interfaith space, post-security, in our new terminal (to come later in 2023/2024, as more space becomes available).”

Marzullo also asked the chaplains to help work with them on information for a “Central Hall operating agreement.”

Father Piasta said the developments over the past six months have taught the chaplains that they need to speak with a common voice on this issue and others in the future.

“So we incorporated ourselves,” he said. “We established a presence. There is now a corporation called LaGuardia Airport Chaplaincy.

“We are not divided; we are united.”

This story was updated on March 15.