Astoria Parish Is the National Shrine of the Catholic War Veterans
By Lou Miano
This is the second of a series of articles based on the NET-TV program of the same name.
An early 20th-century building boom in the northwestern corner of Queens led to an urgent need for a church and a school to serve a growing Catholic community of German, Irish and Italian immigrants. The parish of Immaculate Conception in the Ditmars section of Astoria was founded in January of 1924, and Bishop Thomas E. Molloy appointed Father Michael D. Lopez as the pastor.
By February, construction began on the 29th Street church and the cornerstone was in place by July. A large tent served as a temporary worship site but within a year the building, containing both a church and several classrooms, was dedicated. The Franciscan Sisters taught here until the Sisters of the Holy Union took their place in the mid-1940s.
Father Lopez left in 1933 and Msgr. Edward J. Higgins was appointed pastor, remaining in that role for the next 30 years. For the parish’s 10th anniversary, he commissioned a replica of the Lourdes grotto to be built next to the church, in memory of his recently deceased father.
Catholic War Veterans Shrine Church
Msgr. Higgins had served as a lieutenant-chaplain during the First World War and in 1935 he founded the national organization known as the Catholic War Veterans here. The CWV is the only Catholic organization with a Congressional Charter, awarded in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. Immaculate Conception is the national shrine church of the Catholic War Veterans and its chapter is known as Catholic War Veterans Post No. 1.
When the first pastor, Father Lopez, passed away, he bequeathed a large sum of money to this parish to build a new church on the corner of Ditmars Boulevard. The old worship space, located at 21-63 29th Street, was eventually converted into additional classrooms to create a larger school.
By 1949, noted church architect Henry McGill had designed a unique structure in an Art Deco-Moderne style that included a soaring bell tower and a terra cotta roof, while the inside featured a vaulted ceiling supported by alternating arches that focus attention on the altar.
With 15,000 parishioners attending Mass each Sunday at that time, a lower church was built and a separate side chapel was added upstairs.
In the original design drawings, the large window above the main entrance was round. However, the finished church ultimately featured a square window.
Outside the main entrance are two cornerstones. One is dated 1950, representing the year the church was constructed, while the 1935 stone commemorates the founding of the Catholic War Veterans.
The large, stained-glass windows from the old church were relocated to the new building. But four new windows above the sanctuary were designed to Msgr. Higgins’ specifications and were installed in 1952.
One of these, a gift of the Holy Name Society, depicts the Assumption of Mary into Heaven where she cradles the parish’s church in her arms. To the right is the papal flag, and on the left is an American flag. At Mary’s feet is the hammer of communism and a serpent, symbolizing Mary’s triumph over both Satan and the godless Communists. Also unique to this window are three small panels depicting a battleship, a warplane and the mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb. These images were designed during the post-war era as a stirring reminder of the importance of peace, as well as exemplifying Msgr. Higgins’ love for God and country.
Similarly, another window, The Nativity, also features some small panels with unexpected imagery: a cannon, two rifles and a pair of crossed swords. The pastor felt that the coming of Christ should signify the end of conflicts so these symbols of war were included. Mary holds Jesus, the Prince of Peace, in the center of the window.
During construction of the new church, it was necessary to move the outdoor Lourdes grotto to a new location adjacent to the school. It remained in place until the late 1960s when the fragile stone grotto was carefully moved again and placed outside the chapel entrance.
The church underwent renovations in the late 1980s, and was rededicated in 1992.
More recently, the bell tower was restored through generous donations from the congregation, currently a multi-cultural mix of people who continue to make this a vibrant parish under the leadership of its pastor, Msgr. Fernando Ferrarese.
The parish Knights of Columbus Council No. 11449 was established here in 1994 and has won numerous awards for their outstanding service.
This year Immaculate Conception parish in Astoria celebrates its 93rd anniversary.
The Pastors of Immaculate Conception, Astoria
Father Michael D. Lopez, 1924-33
Msgr. Edward J. Higgins, 1933-63
Father William D. Lyons, 1963-80
Father Walter V. Murphy, 1980-86
Msgr. Charles P. Boccio, 1986-2008
Msgr. Fernando Ferrarese, 2008-
Did You Know This About Astoria?…
Astoria was established in 1839 and named in honor of wealthy businessman John Jacob Astor in the futile hope that he might invest in the area. His name remained anyway.
The earliest Masses were celebrated in a house on Ditmars Boulevard with about 24 parishioners in attendance.
Immaculate Conception parish continued to grow and so did enrollment in the school. Msgr. Higgins, the second pastor, organized a drum and bugle corps for the young people that performed at many local neighborhood events.
A building fund for a new church began in 1940 but was temporarily put on hold during World War II. The structure would later be converted to a full school after the current church was built in 1950.
In 1952, two stained-glass windows were installed. The Coronation window, a gift from the parish Rosary Society, and the Assumption window, a gift from the parish Holy Name Society.
A few familiar entertainers are from the Ditmars area of Astoria: Singer Tony Bennett, and later, the doo-wop vocal group, The Devotions, who toppled the Beatles from the Top 10 with their own novelty hit, “Rip Van Winkle” in 1964. Another well-known resident is former City Council President Peter Vallone, a graduate of Immaculate Conception grammar school.