Diocesan News

St. Agatha’s Parish 100 Years of Faith in Sunset Park (with slideshow)

Photos (c) St. Agatha parishAbove, Auxiliary Bishop Frank Caggiano celebrates the closing Mass of the 100th anniversary year at St. Agatha parish, Sunset Park. Below, the parish is much more than just the church building, which was first built in 1912 and renovated in 1939.
Photos courtesy St. Agatha parish

St. Agatha’s parish has been serving the Sunset Park community for the past 100 years. While the demographics of the community have changed, the parish has remained strong as it completed its 100th anniversary celebration.

Parishioners gathered for the bilingual Mass that closed the 100th anniversary year June 22. Auxiliary Bishop Frank Caggiano, who served his first assignment at St. Agatha, was the main celebrant.

“Bishop Caggiano gave an outstanding homily,” said Father Francisco Walker, pastor for the past eight years. “It’s our journey to find out who Christ is for each one of us. The people here have responded to that call in many ways. They’ve built this gorgeous church and have been a hard-working people.”

After Mass, a multicultural reception representing each of the diverse communities of the parish was held in the parish elementary school building. Music and food from Mexico, Latin America and China highlighted the event, and there was also a Power Point presentation on large screens displaying historical events from the parish’s 100 years.

The parish has been home to many beloved priests over the years. In addition to Bishop Caggiano, Bishops Rene Valero, Paul Sanchez and Raymond Chappetto all served at St. Agatha’s before being raised to the episcopacy.

Parish Origins

St. Agatha’s parish was founded in 1912 by a group Catholics of European descent. Most were Norwegians, but the Irish, Italian and German communities were also represented.

Blueprints called for a huge church building, but since funds were limited, constructing the church would be a gradual process. The lower church was built first and was home to four Masses every Sunday – each attended by about 150 people.

The parish’s first pastor was Father James Smyth, and he chose the martyr St. Agatha as the church’s patron. St. Agatha dedicated her virginity to God and was persecuted for her steadfast profession of faith.

“She (St. Agatha) was able to make the right choice because of her profound faith and what her understanding of Christ meant to her,” Father Walker said. “In the same way, the people of Sunset Park have responded to the deep question of who Christ is.”

As Latin Americans began assimilating into the community, the parish was due for an expansion. The elementary school opened in 1922 and is now celebrating its 90th anniversary. In July, 1938, construction began on the upper church, which cost an estimated $200,000. On Dec. 10, 1939, the first Mass in the renovated building was celebrated before a gathering of 2,000 parishioners.

Multicultural Community

While the church itself is an impressive structure, the parish of St. Agatha is much more than just the building. In the parish’s history, the Sunset Park community has evolved to include a number of ethnic groups who all practice their faith at St. Agatha. However, assimilation has been and will continue to be a challenge for the parish.

The language barrier between the groups sometimes hinders the ability to communicate. Even amongst the priests – Father Walker from Argentina, Father Lianjiang (Peter) Bai from China and Father Dagoberto Noguera from Columbia – the language barrier can be difficult.

But as each of the communities was welcomed to the parish, they’ve become more comfortable participating in parish events. Each group merges its own traditions into parish celebrations, thus ensuring a multicultural atmosphere.

“The parish has the ability to adjust fast,” Father Walker said. “The people are very faithful; they come to Mass. We have them. They are very generous to the parish.”

The Chinese population is growing rapidly. This group is very attached to its traditions but has willingly incorporated itself into parish life.

“The Chinese are now very comfortable walking around the rectory, cooking meals and coming to every event,” Father Walker said. “It seems to me that there is a good feeling going on that they have been accepted.”

Ever since the beginning of the parish, parishioners have openly welcomed all new groups into the family.

“There’s an eagerness to embrace the new people of the parish,” said Raymond Leesha, the parish’s business manager and lifelong parishioner. “That speaks volumes for the future because it’s about transitioning; it’s about always being welcoming.”

100th Anniversary Celebration

Festivities for St. Agatha’s 100th anniversary began in June, 2012 with an international food festival. Many newcomers to the neighborhood took an interest in seeing the different cultures partake in their traditions.

The official opening Mass of the centennial year was celebrated on Sept. 29, 2012. Since then, the parish held a concert in December featuring musical acts from each ethnic group as well as Father Walker on the guitar and Father Bai on the flute.

Throughout the year, the idea of the 100th anniversary was infused into every parish event. Parishioners will also receive a special journal as a keepsake commemorating the past year’s activities.

Moving forward, Father Walker said his main goal is to keep evangelizing the people of the multicultural community, especially the Chinese. Just like the community has evolved in the past, the human geography of the area is bound to keep changing.

“I can see that the parish will survive because of the energy and the resilience of the people and how much they love the place,” Father Walker said.

From the first pastor Father Smyth to the beloved Msgr. Joseph Malagrecca to now Father Walker, the parish has been blessed with pastors who include each of the different cultures into parish life.

“I feel like I’m part of the church, and I wouldn’t change it in anyway,” said Joe Bikar, a member of the parish’s Holy Name Society and a parishioner for 30 years. “St. Agatha is special to me because it’s a close community.”

It’s been a very memorable 100 years at St. Agatha, Father Walker said, and he’s looking forward to leading the parish community into its next 100 years.

One thought on “St. Agatha’s Parish 100 Years of Faith in Sunset Park (with slideshow)

  1. I have always admired St. Agatha as a young girl, and picked her name as
    my Confirmation name. I was curious to see photos of St. Agatha’s parish.
    Your parish looks like a very vibrant parish; keep up the good work, Fr. Walker.

    My parish is St. Matthias in Ridgewood, NY. I have been going there for
    ten years.