Yes, I decorated Saint Patrick’s Church for Christmas. Not Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, or Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street down in Soho, but a third Saint Patrick’s; a little known church just across the East River in Long Island City, Queens. There are also two Saint Patrick’s Churches in Brooklyn, and one in Staten Island. While my contribution of ninety minutes was tiny compared to the full day or two the job actaully took, I think that little church really decorated my dull heart that night.
St. Patrick’s Church
Queens, New York
The church is near the taxi garage that I work out of, and on that night, as fate would have it, they didn’t have a cab for me since so many drivers showed up. So, I decided to stop in the church and say a little prayer of gratitude for an article of mine that was just published. I have stopped outside the church many times driving into Manhattan to say a prayer to start my night. Tonite I took note of the statue in front of a man in peasant clothing with a sombrero resting on his back, kneeling before the Blessed Mother; I realized for the first time that it is Saint Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
From inside, the church is stupendous with a high vaulted ceiling. I knelt to pray and two men were there working, stringing up the pine branch garlands and untangling the long strings of lights. I noticed the Pope Francis Effect working on me. I could hear him say, “Do we stop to help? We need more Good Samaritans.”
I imagined myself saying, “But I didn’t plan on decorating a new church tonight. I just came here to pray.”
To which he might say, “Of course you didn’t, Mister Genius. You cannot fathom what the good Lord has planned for you.”
So, I asked the men if they needed help, and soon I was helping Father John Harrington and Raphael pin the garlands and lights to the walls of the mighty neo-Romanesque church walls. The wreaths were already hung.
I smiled at Raphael’s name, and told him I knew a taxi driver whose name was Gabriel. Father Harrington said that the “El” in the Archangel’s names means “God”—Raphael is the healing of God, Gabriel is the messenger of God, and Michael means “who is like God?” I joked that it would be nice if our names also reflected our missions. I thought of some people I knew whose names would be “Facebook commenter specializing in ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing),” or “Never missed a Happy Hour,” but then I thought of a noble one to aspire to, “Sees Jesus in everyone.”
Father Harrington told me that Saint Patrick’s was the first church in Queens organized in 1869 and the present building is 100 years old.
Raphael did the hard work, climbing the ladder and hooking the strands to the nails. He was a true artist like the artist of the same name. With a seven foot prong, he strung the lights to the pine garlands, and they looked like the tiny lights had been hand woven through the pine branches. At one point he had to climb atop the confessional and I joked, “Doesn’t everything have to come through the confessional?”
When he finished he said, “Could you move the ladder? I can’t really fly down.”
Father Harrington quipped, “We thought you were an angel?”
St. Patrick’s Church
Queens, New York
Then Father said there was a 7:00 Mass so we had to finish just as Sister Flora Marinelli from Religious Instruction for Children arrived.
“Jamey, would you care to join Sister Flora and I for a bowl of chicken soup?”
I said, “Well I was thinking I’d go to Mass, Father. But thank you anyway.”
“Oh, that’s even better.”
I stayed for the Mass even though it was in Spanish, and I barely speak the language. Hey, after six years I better pretty much know what’s going on in the Mass. The parishioners started coming in very early, reverently and humbly. None of the rustling of bags and talking like in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Manhattan. The parts of the Mass that I knew I would softly say to myself in English. But the singing was just divine; no choir, just the saints in the parish singing so sweetly. The Scripture readings, of course I didn’t know, but I made out the word “tiempo” for “time.” Since it was the Gospel reading, I figured it must be from Luke’s nativity narrative, and also since the time of the year was appropriate. I didn’t know any of the hymns until I recognized one at the end I had always liked – “Lord, You Have Come.” I always liked the line in the song – “in my boat you will find no power, no wealth. Will you accept then my nets and my labor?” I “Da-da-da-ed” along. I accepted the Holy Eucharist with tears in my eyes—always a good sign, I think.
I told a few parishioners what a beautiful church and parish they had, filled up my Holy Water bottle and walked out into the night anew.
I went home and looked up the church’s website. It is a thriving parish of five hundred souls with boundless activities: religious education for grades K-8, altar servers camping trips, Ballet Folkloric, celebrations for the Feast of Three Kings, a large First Communion group. They also lease their school building to the Growing Up Green Charter School.
A few days later, I was standing outside the taxi garage and I heard the uncanny sound of a trumpet playing a religious hymn. I looked up and there was a procession of a hundred souls proudly marching down the street proclaiming Christ is Lord, and the sacredness of the Blessed Mother. I took a guess at where they were from and later learned it was Saint Patrick’s Church.
Now the Christmas wreaths, lights and all the decorations are down, or coming down soon. But my heart was decorated that night by that little parish. Formerly unknown to me, Saint Patrick’s Church inspired me. Such a vibrant group living their lives in Christ, and we seldom hear about them. So much life and I never even saw it.
According to Father Mitch Pacwa of EWTN, there is a Mass said somewhere in the world every four minutes. There are 217,616 Catholic parishes in the world. This is only one of them.
© 2014 Jamey Brown. All rights reserved.