by Antonina Zielinska
To commemorate the closing of its 75th year, St. Gregory the Great parish, Bellerose, invited Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio to celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving.
Bishop DiMarzio told the congregation that he read about the parish’s history and was impressed with the “all the hard work and dedication” that defined the parish since its beginning.
The parish was born when Catholics from Bellerose petitioned then-Bishop Thomas E. Molloy for a parish of their own. In response, the third Bishop of Brooklyn commissioned Father William J. McLaughlin as first pastor of St. Gregory the Great.
On June 21, 1936, the first Sunday of the new mission’s existence, over 1,000 people attended Mass in Moose Hall on Jamaica Ave. The people’s enthusiasm for their new parish did not waver. They continued to attend Mass in the Bellerose Theater as they raised funds for a church building of their own.
Although the nation was still recovering from the Great Depression, Father McLaughlin was able to raise enough funds to break ground only six months after the first Mass. The parish was quickly expanding even before the church building could be completed. Fifteen hundred parishioners attended the cornerstone blessing of the partially completed structure.
The parish gained such momentum that no obstacle could impede its growth. Just as the parish was completing work on its church building, New York City announced plans to build the Cross Island Parkway, which separated the buildings of the parish plant. The second pastor, Father Daniel J. Halloran, simply built a walkway underneath the expressway and expanded the parish grounds on the other side with a parochial school, convent and the Gregorian Hall.
The Catholics in the area developed such strong ties with St. Gregory the Great that some who lived in Naassau County remained with the parish even though they lived in the Diocese of Rockville Centre which was established in 1957.
Parishioner Nia Sladdery said so much of her life was integrated with St. Gregory the Great at the time of the split that she could not imagine leaving. Sladdery was among those who helped St. Gregory continue to expand.
In 1980, Msgr. Eugene A. Feldhaus started an annual 11-day June festival as a fundraiser for the parochial school. He said the festival continues to be one of the most successful events in the parish because it not only supports the school but also brings the parish family closer together. Sladdery was among the volunteers who organized the first festival, which had food, music and rides.
“I was in bed for two days after the festival was over,” she said. “We worked like crazy.”
Sladdery said much of her life evolved around the parish. She and her husband were active volunteers and they sent their six children to the school. Daughter Rosanne Sladdery said she is thankful for having the opportunity to grow up in St. Gregory.
“The parish was the center of your childhood, whether you were involved in sports or parish activities,” she said. “All your friends were in the school. The priests and the nuns were just part of your family.”
Strong participation from teenagers and young adults is in large part the reason for the parish’s forward momentum. From its early years, the parish has been known for its strong athletic association, which allowed youth a safe place to play and grow.
In 1996, a family life committee was established to encourage community among the young families in the parish. In 1979, Msgr. Feldhaus launched the drama club to encourage community among youth in parish. These programs continue their ministries to the present day.
Young people continues to be a visible part of the parish. During the anniversary Mass, St. Gregory’s Great Teens buried a time capsule containing letters of advice for youth during the centennial anniversary of the parish and memorabilia of the current time in history including a Lady Gaga CD, pictures and a cell phone.
Deacon Mickey Cutter, moderator of the teen group and youth minister, said the many ways the youngsters participate in the church provides for them a sense of belonging that stays with them into adulthood. He said they often return after college and become part of the many associations in the church, such as the Rosary Craft Group, or the music program.
Rosemary Homewood, a parishioner for 49 years, said St. Gregory’s is a home that can last a lifetime. The parish has programs for all age groups from baptism, to pre-school, to the various senior societies. She said the church is able to run so many programs thanks to the dedication of the priests, deacons and parishioners.
Father Joseph L. Cunningham, current pastor, said the St. Gregory’s thrives because the parishioners support the parish wholeheartedly by donating their time, talents and treasures. He said he does not hold special fund raisers for the parish, and instead relies on the envelope donations during liturgies.
Father Cunningham was also part of one of the major leaps forward in the parish. In 1996, he renovated and rotated the church layout180 degrees. This allowed more space for the many parochial ministries and social activities. It also updated the building with modern convieniences and an elevator for easier access.