By Antonina Zielinska
Six years after a fire destroyed their old church, St. Mary Magdalene parishioners’ faith was rewarded last Sunday when they were able to celebrate Mass for the first time in their newer, bigger church.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio dedicated the new Springfield Gardens church Oct. 2. The old church had to be completely demolished and work had to be redone from the ground up.
The bishop anointed the altar, blessed a bell and incensed the church.
“You know that you kept the church alive because you are the church – but we also need buildings to worship in and invite others into,” the bishop said during his homily, reminding the congregation that the building was more than a meeting hall. “The church is the gate of heaven.”
The bishop said it was who he insisted that more pews be included in the new church, nearly doubling capacity. Now, it was up to the congregation to fill the seats.
He told them he was proud of the black Catholic community in the diocese, which is the largest black Catholic community in the country with about 270,000 people.
The congregation at the dedication Mass not only filled the seats, but also spilled into the aisles and into the foyer.
Shortly after the fire, the decision was made that the church would not be rebuilt and St. Mary Magdalene would be merged with a neighboring parish. However, the administrator, Father Jeffry T. Dillon, said that a diocesan parish survey found that St. Mary Magdalene was a vibrant church with an active parishioner base. Therefore, the bishop agreed to rebuild, but only if the new church would be bigger.
Father Dillon said parishioners stepped up to the challenge. Not only did they nearly double their fundraising goal; they also kept their parish alive in difficult circumstances. In order to celebrate Sunday Mass in the old parish school building, which is now leased to a charter school, parishioners had to set up Saturday afternoon and break everything down on Sunday. Parishioners at the 11 a.m. Mass had to put away their own seats.
Sister Maryellen Kane, C.S.J., who Father Dillon credits with running the day- to-day of the parish and overseeing much of the rebuilding process, said the parish ministries did what they had to do to continue their work. They met in the rectory basement, coordinated with each other and never lost sight of the goals of their individual ministries.
“I’m so happy for the people,” she said. “They were very faithful. They kept on coming to church.”
She said the new parish hall, below the church, should help alleviate scheduling conflicts and allow the parish to flourish.
Marie Y. Dumont, a parishioner for 28 years, said scheduling conflicts were a problem even before the fire. Volunteering at the beverage table at the reception following the dedication Mass, she said she can see much potential for the center and the new church. She said that although she is amazed by the beauty of the new church, she is not surprised.
“We were very patient. We never lost faith that this Church would be built,” she said. “We knew that God would not let us down in our prayers.”
Although she said parishioners at times questioned the future of St. Magdalene, at heart they always knew it would survive. What did surprise her is that the church closely resembles the old church on the inside. This made her happy because of the many memories she had, including her daughter’s wedding just months before the fire.
Another thing that came as no surprise to her was the bishop’s presence. She said he has been very supportive of the community since the fire, celebrating Mass with them the morning after.
Barney Radert, a representative for Rocklyn Assets, the diocesan organization that helps to manage parish real estate properties, said the parish and contractors have been very good in keeping with their commitments. He said that once a rebuilding plan was approved, the parish kept on schedule and on budget.
“This is one of those happy endings,” he said.
Shell Benjamin said she was very happy that the parish pulled through. Although she now lives in Georgia, St. Mary Magdalene is still close and dear to her heart. It’s the parish she grew up in. She remembers practicing dance in the school gym. One of the parish chalices holds her late father’s name engraved on the bottom.
Among the upgrades she is happy to see is the new elevator that will help her mother continue attending the parish. Although she is happy to see some of the changes, including stained-glass windows brought from the old Our Lady of the Skies chapel at JFK airport, she said the church is essentially the same. Even when she visited the parish and attended Mass in the gym, she said it still felt the same.
“It’s the same because the spirit is still the same,” she said.