The First One Hundered Years 1873-1973

The First One Hundred Years 1873-1973

All of the following text was written for the 100th Anniversary of the Parish, in 1973.

1973 - Half a century has passed since His Excellency, James E. Kearney, Bishop of Rochester, first set these memorable words upon paper. The occasion was the Golden Jubilee of the Church of St. Cecilia, which was celebrated with a Solemn Pontifical Mass on February 4, 1934. In the ensuing years, the turbid busy city of which Bishop Kearney wrote has experienced numerous changes, perhaps among the greatest being those that have affected and are continuing to change the sixty square blocks stretching from East One Hundredth Street to East One Hundred and Twelfth Street, and from Fifth Avenue to Second Avenue, in that section of East Harlem known as "El Barrio."

This is "the neighborhood." Well-known for its heavy Hispanic population, it is home to approximately twenty-five thousand Americans whose roots are deep in the sun-swept Island of Puerto Rico but whose hopes now belong to the mainland States, and more than fourteen thousand Black Americans whose forefathers have contributed to every stage of our developing nation. Home also to smaller groups whose ties are to ancient oriental cultures, great Roman Empires, and sparkling Emerald Islands, "the neighborhood" can count among its riches the diversity of this vast population, in which is found the "People of God." Like many generations throughout these past one hundred years, this congregation of the Faithful centers its love and belief in the venerable Church of St. Cecilia which even now, as it celebrates its centennial anniversary, continues to bear its "cross-crowned steeple, in the majesty of peace.

"El Barrio," One Hundred Years Ago
Manhattan had started its move upward as the Nineteenth Century entered its fourth quarter. In the area between Central Park's northeastern perimeter and Hell Gate's excellent bathing and fishing facilities, small businesses were springing up, reflecting the tastes and desires of a new influx of Irish and Italian immigrants who had come to join the already established German and Jewish population.

Fringed surreys and carriages still carried respectable sporting gentry of the day to One Hundred and Fifth Street and the Old Red House, a resort hotel that featured a quarter-mile trotting track. There was an abundance of grass and trees, children ran barefoot through the streets spinning hoops and tops. To the south, the financially elite had established their residences in great townhouses, and Fifth Avenue was beginning to acquire the glint of gold that would spread its fame as a fashion center throughout the world for decades to come. But for the most part, "the neighborhood" was home to a hard-working industrious, middle-class people intent upon building a better future than that found in the lands from which they had so recently come.

This was the East Harlem of 1873, and into this atmosphere came the Very Reverend Hugh Flattery, pioneer priest who was to become the first pastor of the Church of St. Cecilia. Zealous and devoted, he was called a true Apostle by those who knew him in the infant days of St. Cecilia's Parish. That he was also a man of extraordinary foresight and knowledge is evidenced by his many achievements in behalf of Our Lord and His Flock.

Men of God
Father Flattery's tiny chapel was established in the Old Red House less than two hundred years after the cornerstone for the first permanent Roman Catholic Church in the City of New York was laid in lower Manhattan. Turning the hotel into a parochial residence, Father Flattery offered Holy Mass here daily, but in a short time the increase of attendance made it evident that a new site would soon be necessary. With no thought to his own personal convenience, the noble priest worked for the parish and sacrificed every individual comfort. He was not to see the new church,however, for in 1879, after six years of Christ-like zeal this good pastor was called to his rich reward.

Father Flattery's successor and the first pastor of the present site of St. Cecilia's Church was the Very Reverend Monsignor William P. Flannelly. The good parishioners were spurred on by their new pastor and working together they made Father Flattery's hopes a reality.

Property East One Hundred and Sixth Street was procured and work began immediately. 0n September 9, 1883, at four o'clock, the corner-stone of the new church was laid. The Right Reverend William Quinn performed the ceremonies and the sermon was delivered by Reverend Dr. Edward McGlynn. Within half a year the pastor and his flock were to experience even greater joy when, on the fourth Sunday of Epiphany , 1884, the Most Reverend Archbishop Hayes blessed the basement chapel of what would be the new edifice. This was all that was completed when Father Flannelly passed on to his eternal reward just a short time after.

The Builder of Churches
Assuming charge of St. Cecilia's at a time and under conditions that were calculated to test the sterling capabilities of the business man more, than the theological attainments of the priest, Reverend Michael J. Phelan famed throughout the diocese as "The Builder of Churches," was designated pastor of St. Cecilia's Parish in 1884. Coming to us from St. Mary's in Newburgh, this gifted and experienced Priest of God began at once to carry on the labors of his predecessors.

Father Phelan was to remain pastor at St. Cecilia's for thirty-eight years. These were years that reaped a rich spiritual harvest. Of primary importance was the completion of the upper church, an accomplishment brought to fruition in 1887. Using the plans of Napoleon Le Brun, the same architect who designed the Metropolitan Life Building, Father Phelan acted as general contractor, commissioning the services of carpenters, plasterers, tinsmiths, bricklayers, etc., who were mostly members of the parish, and thereby saved his parishioners almost fifty thousand dollars in contracting

El Barrio, Revisited (Originally written in the early 70s)
Nearly two million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland today, including many main land educated second-generation adults. Of this number, more than six hundred thousand live in New York City, and most of these American citizens have at one time or another passed through or lived in El Barrio. During the past century the Black population of the area has also expanded, adding its multifaceted talents and efforts to the parish life and showing great dedication to the church and to our schools. But although this has been a somewhat transitory neighborhood at times, there have been dramatic and inspiring changes, much of it promoted and spurred on by churches such as St. Cecilia's, which serve not only as religious body and educator, but as a focus for community action as well.

Here, among the tenements and lines of strung-out wash, pot-holed streets and graffiti covered buildings, have labored the Redemptorist Fathers for over thirty years. This world-wide order, following in the footsteps of their founder, St. Alphonsus, who tried to bring the salvation of Jesus Christ to the world, especially to "the poorest and most abandoned," has plunged into the life and times of its community, counting among its causes such diverse elements as the plight of migrant workers, as exemplified by the crusades of Caesar Chavez, and the development of self-help organizations such as the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs.

In the quarter century since our Diamond Jubilee, we have been guided in these endeavors by eight pastors: The Very Reverend Jeremiah J. Scannell, C.SS.R., from 1945-1950; The Very Reverend Philip A Bardeck SS.R., 1950-1956, who completed an addition to the rectory which now serves as school office, Parish Service Center, and meeting rooms for various parish societies; The Very Reverend John J. Driscoll, C.SS.R., 1956-1959; The Very Reverend Raymond A. Whelan, C.SS.R., 1959-1964; The Most Reverend James E. McManus, C.SS.R., D.D., 1964-1966, who came directly to East Harlem and St. Cecilia's from Puerto Rico where he had built the Catholic University; The Very Reverend Joseph F. Berton, C.SS.R., 1966-1970; The Very Reverend James L. Ferris, C.SS.R., 1970-1972, who started the Parish Service Center; and our present pastor, the Very Reverend Edward J. Whalen, C.SS.R., who was known and loved by the people of our community long before he became pastor, for his service as curate during Father Berton's tenure, and who is called "The People's Priest." During Father Whalen's installation as pastor there were three standing ovations, an indication of the excellent spirit of warmth and rapport Father has generated in El Barrio.

Education Today
A very strong part of the apostolate in East Harlem continues to be the Christian education of the children. To accomplish this task, St. Cecilia's two schools, St. Cecilia's at 220 East 106th Street, and Commander Shea School at 132 East 111th Street, are taught by fifteen lay teachers in addition to our teaching Sisters and Brothers. Starting this year, 1973, we have combined the two structures into one unit, the culmination of plans begun by Brother Edward A. Walsh, C.F.C., who is presently teaching at Essex Catholic High School. Many others were to carry on this very difficult transition so that we now have all grades Five through Eight in St. Cecilia's School, and all grades One through Four in Commander Shea School.

Brother Joseph A. Shields, C.F.C., is the administrator of the new "Schools of St. Cecilia," which educate more than one thousand children yearly. The building principals are Brother Michael A. Williams, C.F.C., in St. Cecilia's, and Sister Constance Ann Christie, R.S.M., in Commander Shea School. If credit can be given to one person more than any other for the spirit of our newly combined school, it would be to James Gerard Doherty, C.F.C., former principal of St. Cecilia's, who was unable to continue as principal because of poor health, but continued to give his support and ideas to all our educational projects until the very day of his saintly death on October 9, 1973.

This same spirit of love and dedication has long been enhanced by the presence in our midst of Sister Mary Veronica Cahill, R.S.M., who has been with St. Cecilia's for most of her adult life (more than seven decades, and continues to teach here; Brother lqnatius Sanchez, C.F.C., who was one of the first `Brothers in Commander Shea School and is still active in the parish; and our beloved Sacristan, Brother Luke Gimborn, C.SS.R., who, like our other longevous religious, is a particular favorite of the community's young people.

More than fifty percent of our youngsters continue onto Catholic high school. Money is the deciding factor; a greater number would choose a Catholic high school if it were not for the financial aspect. About sixty percent of graduates from our grade schools go on to college after high school graduation, a fact that fills our teaching orders with great pride as it is here that most of our children receive their initial taste of school, and the instilling of a love of education that has long been one of our objectives.

An active adult education program, first set up by Brother Patrick J. Reilly, C.F.C., and Sister M. Fredrick Freese, R.S.M., and sponsored by the Archdiocese, presently has an enrollment of about seventy. It is the first and longest continuous adult education program in a New York Archdiocesan parish. Taught by the Brothers, Sisters, and lay teachers, its basic premise is that of helping our parishioners and others from the neighborhood to qualify for their equivalency diplomas. Basic math and English are emphasized here, with excellent results every year.

A dual role also falls to the Commander Shea School. Used for Masses on Sunday for the people in that section of the parish, it proudly houses the Altar that was used by Pope Paul VI during his trip to the States when he said his famous Mass in Yankee Stadium. This was given to the school in March of 1972 by Cardinal Cooke. Commander Shea, with its gym and large auditorium, serves also as an after school center for many young persons of the neighborhood. There is an excellent CYO sports program offered here, run mostly by the Brothers who have seen their efforts rewarded by the improved mental and physical health of those children who participate. They can also count among the programs alumni two young men who have gone into professional athletics. The boys of the parish center their activities on basketball, track, and volleyball. The center, known as the Ruben Figueroa Youth Center, is in the process of developing even further and is now seeking outside funding. Father Browne is moderator of the school and says Mass there each week.

Helping Hands
The core of big-city life is its newcomers. Special ties of language, heritage, and religion have given birth to small islands in the midst of the metropolis that is New York. But where does one go when help is needed? At St. Cecilia's there is the Parish Service Center run by Sisters Theresa and Maureen with the able assistance of Mrs. Gloria Moreno. Funded by Catholic Charities, family problems, counseling, health problems - anything that affects the temporal needs of the people of East Harlem are handled here with instant concern and with a personal Christian attention. The center has been in operation only since October of 1972, but its value has been inestimable and a great blessing to the parish community.

The Day Nursery started so long ago for the children of working mothers is still run by the Sisters of Atonement who came to us in 1927. It is sometimes difficult to believe that the children of our earliest groups under Father Phelan's rectorship would be well into their eighties by now, and that the toys with which they played might perhaps be considered museum pieces.

Mt. Sinai Hospital and the Flower and Fifth Avenue Hospital have been the special province the priests of St. Cecilia. Fathers Stevens, Holland, Smith, and Brinkmann are the current chaplains in charge.

A summer program, run primarily by the church in conjunction with Catholic Charities and the East Harlem Community Corporation, provides recreational, cultural, and religious outlets for the youth of the parish. A similar program, sponsored by various parish societies, provides buses every weekend from June to the end of September and enables our parishioners to escape the city heat through a variety of picnics and outings, including a pilgrimage to Canada.

In a true spirit of ecumenism and love for one's fellow man, the people of St. Cecilia's together with those from Our Lady Queen of Angels, under Father Raymond Hand, O.F.M., Cap., have formed a narcotics treatment center called "Enter." Run almost like a hostel, "Enter" offers a soup kitchen, beds, detoxification program, and therapy to all who desire help. Constant clothing and food drives help in the support of this vast undertaking.

The Cursillistas engaging in the intense three day retreat known as Cursillo, have assumed enormous importance during these last few years. Men and women of the parish who attend the Cursillo come alive to the great reality of Christ in our midst, drawing them together in a single body, showing them that no one knows to what extent he is living by the strength and love that flows into him from others.

A Parish Is People
Each year we celebrate the Feast of St. Cecilia, Patroness of our parish. Each year, the life of this great saint, whom the Church has named Patroness of Sacred Music, focuses our attention on the need to bring harmony into our lives. This harmony means order, design, smoothness - the arranging of all the parts of our life to achieve the main purpose of our existence which is to love God and because of Him, to love our neighbor.

It is most fitting that the Patron Saint of our parish is the Patroness of Music, St. Cecilia. We are a parish that loves the sound of music, and laughter, and happiness. Sociability and interaction are expressive of our life style; music, coupled with our centuries-old ties to Catholicism is expressive of our soul.

There are four Folk Masses at St. Cecilia's every Sunday, and three different Folk Masses for young people, plus a most creative children's. liturgy prescribed by Father Dorff and a team of Brothers and Sisters. The "Cuatro," instrument of Puerto Rican heritage is used together with the organ at the 11:15 Sunday Mass or on special occasions such as the exceptionally beautiful Mass of Thanksgiving, or Christmas Midnight Mass when the Nativity scene is reenacted.

Drawing upon the deep and rich heritage of the Black Catholic as well, efforts are underway to also incorporate into the worship life of the parish a Black liturgy. By increasing the Church's relevance to the Black community, St. Cecilia's strives to enable more Afro-American Catholics to follow Pope Paul's exhortation to contribute to the whole Church their "valuable and unique gift of blackness which she (the Church) needs especially at this moment in her history." These efforts have been greatly aided by the National Office of Black Catholics whose good works include the development of liturgical music of particular cultural interest to Black people. The parish's reverence and love for music, both Sacred and secular, is exemplified by chorister, Gilbert Price, who continued to sing at St. Cecilia's, in addition to his stage and television commitments, whenever he is in New York.

During the month of May we celebrate the "Fiesta de la Cruz," winding through different streets of the parish every night, but always ending in front of St. Cecilia's where we receive the blessings of our pastor. There is dancing in the streets, and the people bring out huge platters heaped with flan or los dulces or arroz con gondules and everyone joins in honoring the month of May and the Month of Mary with religious songs.

Tremendous processions reaching into every part of the neighborhood mark Holy Week. Good Friday involves almost everyone as the steps of Our Saviour carrying His Cross are recalled.

But we are not Christians for a day or a week at a time only. As we have tried to show, His influence touches upon all aspects of our lives, both as individuals and as a community united in God. Our parish societies continue to flourish, evidence of our good will and aspirations for the future. The Santo Nombre, Las Damas del Perpetuo Socorro, the St. Cecilia Alumni Society, still vital with its officers, Miss Eleanor Brosnihan and Mr. John Whelan, aided by Frank Mahoney, long a benefactor of both the Church and the Alumni Society, the PTA, Hijas de Maria, Legion of Mary, Choir, CYO . . . each has its treasured place in St. Cecilia's Parish, and each serves as a reminder that we are a link with yesterday as well as a bridge to tomorrow.

Update 2010
Sadly, the Redemptorist left the parish in July 2009. The parish is now run by The Apostles of Jesus. Cristo Rey New York High School now occupies both the Sisters of Mercy Convent and the Sister of the Atonement Convent. Cristo Rey New York High School has done extensive renovations to inside and outside of the two convents. They are now one building on the outside.
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