by Marie Elena Giossi
“Christ, be our light! Shine in your Church gathered today” were the words that echoed through St. Andrew Avellino Church, Flushing, as the parish came together to close its centennial year on Sunday, June 1.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio was the main celebrant of the 10:30 a.m. Mass, which was the culmination of a year of spiritual and social festivities, including special Masses, a multicultural celebration, a religious convocation, feast-day blessings, a dinner dance and a pilgrimage to Italy.
As parishioners arrived, they were proud to receive pins designed with the church’s anniversary logo.
Parish schoolchildren and teachers filled the back rows, while front pews were reserved for the centennial committee and parish ministry members, as well as parishioners, including Queens Supreme Court Judge Robert McGann and FDNY Chief of Department Edward S. Kilduff.
Over a dozen priests concelebrated the Mass, including Father Joseph T. Holcomb, pastor; Msgr. Michael Brennan, parochial vicar; and school alumni, namely Msgrs. George Ryan and Edward Bottino, and Father John Costello. Deacon Jaime Varela, the bishop’s assistant, and parish Deacon Eugene Wohlfarth assisted on the altar.
“We come today to celebrate 100 years of prayer here in Queens at this parish because that is what the church is – it is the community that prays,” Bishop DiMarzio told the faithful.
This community of faith is an outgrowth of St. Michael Church in downtown Flushing. Catholics in upper Flushing wanted their own church, so seven laymen spent two years petitioning Bishop Charles McDonnell to establish a parish in the area.
In May, 1914, their request was granted, and the first Mass was celebrated June 7, 1914 in a movie theatre.
According to parish history, the bishop chose St. Andrew Avellino as the parish patron because a number of priests had suffered heart attacks. The 16th-century Italian saint is the patron of heart attack victims, and the Flushing church is the only one named in his honor in the U.S.
On June 4, 1916, Bishop McDonnell dedicated a wooden church with a seating capacity of 567. As the parish grew, a rectory, school and convent were added.
Parishioners celebrated the church’s 20th anniversary by raising funds for a bigger church. On Dec. 15, 1940, Bishop Thomas Molloy dedicated the present church. An example of American Art Deco style, the building features reinforced concrete, limestone and tapestry brick, interior murals and a Casavant organ.
Through the years, the church underwent some renovations, particularly after a fire in 1973, and parish societies and ministries were established to enhance the spiritual and social lives of parishioners.
The new millennium brought the sound of bells back to the belfry, and a capital campaign was conducted to renovate, repair and update parish properties. A Saints’ Chapel and Mary Garden were two additions.
The faith that built the church a century ago continues today with 1,500 registered families – Latino, Filipino, Korean, Polish and Albanian newcomers and longtime Irish and Italian parishioners.
No Greater Mission
“Today we see the children of the school here … as witnesses to the present mission of the parish – to teach our young people their faith,” the bishop said. “There is no greater mission for a parish.”
The parish counts among its vocations retired Bishop John Synder of St. Augustine, Fla.; Msgr. James Bouffard of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., a seminary classmate of Bishop DiMarzio; Msgr. Peter Kain; and several diocesan priests who served on the altar.
The bishop gave credit to the clergy and parishioners who built this “great place of worship” but reminded the congregation, “the community that worships is even more important than the building. That is you. Keep your faith together.”
Celebrating the centennial year has been “a wonderful, life-giving experience … of building community and bringing people together,” noted Father Holcomb, who served the parish as a newly ordained priest, 1980-86, and was “privileged” to return as pastor in 2009.
“I think the sense of community here is notable,” shared John Dennehy, who attended Mass with his wife Catherine. They raised six children in the parish.
For the last 30 years, they have volunteered in the parish’s homeless shelter. Catherine cooks the meals, and John stays overnight with the men, offering fellowship and a listening ear.
“We don’t want to simply pass by and go to Mass on Sunday,” John said. “We try in our own human way to live the Gospel here.”
If that spirit remains, then perhaps the hope of fourth-grade student Emily Canavan for the parish to “still be going strong for the next 100 years” will become a reality.
As a symbol of the parish’s faith in its future, the parish gave the bishop a check for $75,000 and promised that the parish debt to the diocese would be paid off by 2015.