Diocesan News

Trowel Returned to St. Sebastian After 126 Years

The trowel’s engravings reveal the origins of St. Sebastian Church, including the members of the clergy on hand for the cornerstone laying in 1896. (Photo: Facebook)

WOODSIDE — A long-lost piece of the history of St. Sebastian Church has been returned to the parish, thanks to a local resident who found it in his house and brought it to the rectory last month.

A treasured trowel that was used when the cornerstone for the original wooden version of St. Sebastian Church was placed in 1896 is now back in the church’s possession — 126 years after it was first used.

“It was an unexpected gift to get it back,” said Father Patrick West, the church’s pastor. “It’s a ceremonial type of thing that they would have had at that time. I don’t know who they would have given it to after the ceremony.”

The donor, Joseph Eaton, discovered the gold-plated trowel in his basement while cleaning out his house in preparation for a move to the Hamptons. 

“At first, I didn’t know what it was,” he recalled. “I had to take out a magnifying glass to read what was engraved on it.”

Eaton and his sister, Anne Carstensen, both grew up in the house, which, until the recent sale, had been in their family since 1910. 

“When we realized its significance, we knew what we had to do,” he said. 

“We thought it belonged to the church and that it should go back to the church,” Carstensen added.

Father West said Eaton “walked into the rectory with it and offered to give it to the church on the spot.”

The trowel’s engravings tell quite a story. One side depicts a cross. The other is engraved with the words, “This trowel was used by Rev. C.E. McDonnell in laying the cornerstone of St. Sebastian Church, Woodside, L.I. March 15, 1896.” 

“Rev. C.E. McDonnell” is a reference to Bishop Charles E. McDonnell, who served as the second bishop in the history of the Diocese of Brooklyn. The name of Rev. E.M. Gannon, the first pastor of St. Sebastian Church, is also engraved on the trowel.

Father West explained that the trowel lists Woodside as being located in Long Island rather than New York because the church was built two years before the consolidation of New York City.

St. Sebastian Church was established in 1894, but the church wasn’t built until two years later. The original wooden church building was located on Woodside Avenue. In 1926, a brick church building was constructed to replace it.

The trowel isn’t the only interesting aspect of St. Sebastian Church’s history.

The church is the only one in the Diocese of Brooklyn located in a converted movie theater, and it still has some of the features of that theater, including a long, sloping floor. Because of its provenance as a movie theater, it is also one of the churches without stained glass windows.

In 1955, the church purchased the old Loew’s Woodside Theater, which opened in 1926 on Roosevelt Avenue. The purchase took place after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled movie studios held unfair monopolies for owning both studios and movie theaters. The high court ruling meant that the studios, including RKO, owner of Loew’s Woodside Theater, were forced to sell their properties.

For now, Father West is storing the trowel in the rectory for safekeeping. He plans to have a plexiglass case constructed to display it. 

He has utalized the trowel a couple of times since it was given to the church last month. “There was a person who passed away. She was a very active person in the parish, so I brought it with me to the wake. I talked about how churches are built with brick and mortar. But parishes’ faith communities are built by the hard work of volunteers,” he said.