By Antonina Zielinska
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio rededicated the Shrine Church of Our Lady Solace in Coney Island, Dec. 20, during a festive liturgy symbolizing a rebirth of the church building that has suffered disrepair for over half a century. He also consecrated the new altar.
Superstorm Sandy was just the latest disaster that left the church in disarray, the bishop said during his homily, which he delivered in English, Spanish and Italian. However, he said, there was a silver lining that came with the storm: the spirit of service.
“When people have faith they are ready and willing to help others,” he said. The suffering of those days is mostly over, but the spirit of helping each other must continue.
Blessing in Disguise
“Sandy was a blessing in disguise because over 50 to 60 years the church was sinking down,” said Father Shiju Chittattukara, S.D.V., pastor. “The floor looked like a roller coaster.”
The floors were so uneven that not only was it difficult to walk on, but the pews were all uneven, the pastor said. Over the decades parishioners had begun to get used to the church being in bad shape.
Then Sandy hit and the community bonded together.
“We had to start from broken pieces,” the pastor said. “We got united. There was momentum.”
“We all had our plights after Sandy,” said Juan Carlos Carril, the financial advisor to the pastor. He said the parish is made up of mostly lower income families, for whom the recovery was not easy. Despite their own hardships, the people still wanted to help the church.
Parishioner attendance and participation increased.
The pastor at the time, Father Armando Palmieri, S.D.V., responded to that good will and began to lead the church to recovery. At first, the parish used electronic generators to power radiators and an electronic keyboard for Sunday Mass. He then began to undertake more ambitious plans of refurbishing the church building.
Before he could finish his plans, Father Palmieri was recalled to Italy to serve as councilor general of Vocationist parishes worldwide and as pastor of a parish in Rome. It fell to his parochial vicar, Father Chittattukara to finish what he had started.
“Construction is not my cup of tea,” Father Chittattukara said. He said he was completely unprepared to take on Father Palmieri’s projects but he did not want to lose the momentum the former pastor had gained.
So the new pastor put his faith in the Holy Spirit.
Funds came in partially from insurance and loans.
All the groups of the parish did their part to close the gap, said Carmen Carril, Juan Carlos’ wife. The Mexican group, Guadalupenos, took it upon themselves to completely redo the grotto of Our Lady of Solace outside of the church building. Parishioners refurbished all the pews that had stood underwater as a result of the storm waters flooding the church. The Girl Scouts did their part with bake sales.
“We helped because we knew that Father Shiju needs all the help he can get,” said the Carril’s 16-year-old daughter, Briana.
“It felt good because it felt like I was part of helping to fix the church,” said Alexa, Briana’s 14-year-old sister.
Their brother, Daniel, 16, said he was honored to be part of the rededication ceremony by serving at the altar.
At the time of the rededication ceremony the church had a new altar, new floors, new lighting and refurbished inner and outer walls, statues and pews.
“It’s like a brand new church,” said George Ribellino, the Grand Knight of the St. Matthew Knights of Columbus from Norwalk, Conn.
The Knights drove into Brooklyn in the aftermath of Sandy looking to donate goods they collected with their parish. Because phone lines were down, they could not get in touch with Brooklyn parishes. When the Knights drove up to Our Lady of Solace, they found Father Palmieri trying to clean up outside of the church and offered their donation. Since that day, the council has been helping the church in various projects. For Christmas this year, it donated gifts for the children of the religious education program.
“This is like our sister parish,” Rebellino said. “We feel so welcomed here. The warmth here is incredible.”
Maria Garces, the parish’s director of religious education, said she was grateful to the Knights.
“Our parishioners are low-income families,” she said. “We want the children to have at least one gift for Christmas.”
However, she added that the whole parish received an incredibly special gift this year with the rededication of the church. The building had been closed since May for renovation and the parish was using its gymnasium for Mass.
“It’s our Christmas gift, from Our Lady of Solace, that our church is open,” she said.
To commemorate the rededication of the 115-year old church, the parish lit up the historic Parachute Jump on Coney Island with the words “OLS 2015.”
Our Lady of Solace is the only Catholic church on Coney Island and was dedicated a shrine church upon the direct wishes of Pope Pius X.