MILL BASIN — When former Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin ran for New York governor last year, he often talked about what he would do with the political power that comes with the state’s highest elected office if elected.
But when Zeldin delivered remarks as the keynote speaker at the 123rd annual Cathedral Club of Brooklyn Dinner at El Caribe Country Club in Mill Basin on Thursday, Feb. 2, he wasn’t talking about the power of politics — he was talking about the power of prayer.
In a deeply personal speech, Zeldin recalled a life-threatening medical emergency he and his wife Diana faced when their twin daughters, Arianna and Mikayla, were born 16 years ago. The girls were born
14 1/2 weeks premature and weighed less than 3 pounds. Little Mikayla had serious health issues, including a hole in her brain that required surgery.
Doctors told the Zeldins Mikayla’s chances of survival were slim to none and suggested that the couple “let her go.”
The Zeldins were distraught but refused to give up hope, praying that their little girl would somehow make it. They drew solace from prayer and from the courage of their infant daughter.
Twenty-four hours after the doctors delivered their grim prognosis, Zeldin and his wife noticed something. “Mikayla wasn’t getting any better but she wasn’t getting any worse,” he said. At that moment, they realized Mikayla, tiny as she was, was a fighter. “If she’s going to fight, then clearly, we’re going to fight too,” he said.
Looking at Bishop Robert Brennan, who was seated on the dais, Zeldin said, “I hope this is OK, Bishop, but my wife and I took prayers in about 16 different religions.” Bishop Brennan looked at him and smiled.
The couple was with their daughter before she was taken up to the operating room for brain surgery, “not knowing if it would be the last time we would see her,” Zeldin said. Hours later, a doctor came in with the good news: While Mikayla wasn’t out of the woods, the surgery had gone better than expected. “I remember high-fiving my wife, I remember that today vividly,” Zelin said.
Mikayla not only survived, she thrived. She and her twin sister Arianna are now 16 years old and looking at colleges.
“It was a combination of my daughter having a will to live, the miracle of modern medicine, and the miracle of prayer,” Zeldin said about her fight for survival.
Zeldin’s heartfelt speech was a highlight of the dinner, which was attended by 500 people and raised more than $300,000 for Catholic education. Radio personality Jim Kerr served as the master of ceremonies.
The Cathedral Club of Brooklyn, a Catholic lay organization founded by the Diocese of Brooklyn in 1900, promotes Catholic interests and provides scholarships to enable students to attend Catholic high schools.
“Accessibility is very important,” Bishop Brennan told The Tablet. “When I go around to visit the schools, I really do see Brooklyn and Queens. I don’t see a select few who can afford it. Thanks to the efforts of the Cathedral Club and our own Futures in Education, we are making Catholic schools far more accessible.”
The guest of honor, Christopher McDonald, executive director and head of facilities for national retail services at JPMorgan Chase, is a product of Catholic schools in the diocese. He grew up in Breezy Point and attended St. Francis De Sales School and Bishop Ford High School. He is a graduate of the State University of New York Maritime College.
McDonald is grateful for his Catholic education. “It created a foundation that allowed me to make progress in life,” he told The Tablet.
Cathedral Club president Antonio Biondi presented McDonald and Zeldin with awards for their work and spoke of the importance of giving back to society. “My purpose is to be of service to others,” he said. “I challenge us to be of service, too.”
Zeldin, a Republican who represented Suffolk County in the House of Representatives from 2015 to Jan. 1, 2023, challenged incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. Running on an anti-crime platform, he came tantalizingly close to beating her despite the fact that the New York electorate is heavily Democratic. Hochul won 52% of the vote to Zeldin’s 47%. In previous gubernatorial elections, Republican candidates have not fared as well.
In an interview with The Tablet, Zeldin noted that the Cathedral Club helps families afford Catholic school tuition and said he favors voucher programs and other forms of taxpayer help for parents.
“I strongly support school choice and the whole package of options to promote school choice. I’m for lifting the cap on charter schools, school vouchers, educational savings accounts, tax credits for school choice,” he said.
“Every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, or wealth, deserves access to a quality education,” he added.