Ministry for the Suburbs: a Diocese's Journey

By Bart Jones
The Newsday [Long Island, NY]
June 3, 2007,0,4149635.story?coll=ny-linews-print

Police on motorcycles accompanied Walter P. Kellenberg as he made his way in a convertible through the streets of Nassau County to St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, where cheers rose from a throng of 10,000. It was May 26, 1957.

Lining the road was a guard of honor formed by Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus. They wore feathered helmets, and their swords glinted in the sun and pointed to the sky.

The 20-car motorcade came to a halt in front of the cathedral. The new bishop climbed out and strode to the rectory to present his credentials in the form of a "papal bull" empowering him to take canonical possession of the newly formed Diocese of Rockville Centre.

The next day, Kellenberg turned to a packed audience in the cathedral and declared the sprawling new suburban diocese "ready to dare for God, for Church and for Country."

As it marks its 50th anniversary today with a Jubilee Mass at St. Agnes, and in parishes from Floral Park to Montauk, the Diocese of Rockville Centre finds itself at a juncture of relative peace. The arc of its journey has been remarkable for its hills and valleys. It began with tremendous hope and energy, soared to heights of optimism amid booming school enrollment and construction, then fell into a steep decline marked by apparent disengagement by many "lapsed Catholics" and, finally, the startling priest sex-abuse scandal of the 2000s.

Lately, however, positive trends have emerged. The seminary in Lloyd Harbor is preparing to graduate its largest class in years, the diocese's high schools are steadily rising in popularity and reputation, and an energetic infusion of Hispanics - many of them immigrants - is helping to fill the pews and collection plates once again. Hope seems to be surging, at least to some.

"You cannot eradicate the Catholic Church," said Msgr. James MacDonald, rector of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Lloyd Harbor, housed in a stately structure that symbolizes the grandeur and rich history of the church. "It will last until the end of time."

In 1957, about half a million of Long Island's nearly 1.8 million residents were Catholic, two-thirds of them attended Mass every week, and they were hungry for faith. As early leaders scrambled to erect new houses of worship, the people prayed in rented stores, in barns, in fire houses, in drive-in movie theaters, even in converted taverns and chicken coops.

"The place was just growing like crazy," recalled Emil Wcela, 75, a longtime auxiliary bishop who retired from that post recently and who was ordained one year before the diocese was founded.

More, but not as faithful

Today, the number of people on Long Island who identify themselves as Catholic is even higher than 50 years ago: They account for 1.4 million out of 2.8 million residents. But as little as 20 percent to 25 percent attend Mass with any regularity, according to church officials including Bishop William F. Murphy.

Almost six years as bishop, Murphy, despite his personal warmth and what many describe as a smooth politician's style, has no expectation of pleasing everyone. His often blunt enforcement of orthodoxy within the diocese has triggered confrontations and many wounds are as yet unhealed.

He feels he has done a lot to involve more lay people in church affairs, though he remains criticized for not doing enough. And in a recent, 45-minute interview, Murphy says he is a man haunted by the cases of children sexually abused by priests.

"I don't think they ever recover from the horrors," Murphy said of the victims. He added that he regrets not listening enough to and meeting with critics such as Voice of the Faithful, a local chapter of a national group that pushes for more involvement of lay people in the church and advocates for victims of priest sexual abuse.

Even as these disagreements persist, the diocese at 50 remains an integral part of many parishioners' lives, a tradition-steeped institution that offers spiritual nourishment, companionship, community and a chance to follow their Lord's teachings to serve others.

The reach of local parishes can take surprising forms. At Christ the King in Commack, a parish of 5,400 families that meets in a new, Romanesque-style church, Tom Burns works on a program to provide food to nearly 500 children in two impoverished villages in Haiti.

Christ the King, opened in 1959, was the first new parish established after the founding of the Diocese of Rockville Centre two years earlier. Burns heads social ministries for Christ the King, and his work there, quiet and largely invisible in the headlines, is not unusual for the 134 parishes in the diocese.

Helping feed the children

In photographs Burns keeps in his office, some of the Haitian children's stomachs are bloated and their necks are thin from hunger.

"They don't even play" because the lack of food leaves them with no energy, said Burns, who has visited the villages. "They make pancakes out of mud just to fill their stomachs."

The people of Christ the King raise about $36,000 a year to feed the Haitian children. They also paid for the construction of a water well, eliminating the need for residents to walk two or three miles to a polluted river. Burns thinks the project is in keeping with the verses from the Gospel of St. Matthew that speak about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger.

A sharply different sort of ministry is at work down the hall from Burns' office, where a couple of dozen senior citizens gathered in the McGann Room for their monthly social. They nibbled at coffee cake, drank tea and coffee and shared stories of their latest trials and tribulations.

Many were shuttled to the church that day by the parish, which also helps some of them go to the supermarket and doctor's appointments.

"This is a very wonderful and thriving parish," said Eleanor Murphy, 81. "It gives me a feeling of such closeness. I feel like I belong here."

Her table-mate, Kathleen O'Sullivan, agreed.

"It means everything. Where would we be without our parish?"

On June 25, 1959, 300 of the faithful gathered in a vacant storefront in the Commack Corners Shopping Center on Jericho Turnpike. The same day, the owners of the Mayfair Theatre gave the new Christ the King parish permission to use its theater for Sunday Mass, which it sang three days later.

Meanwhile, priests soon started conducting baptisms in the garage of a rented house they made into their rectory.

The new diocese of which Christ the King was a small part had been rumored for years before its establishment. The old Brooklyn diocese had stretched from Coney Island to Montauk Point.

Cardinal Francis Spellman accidently announced a week early on Holy Thursday in April 1957 that Long Island would now be home to two dioceses - with the division at the Nassau-Queens border. Waves of Catholics - big Baby Boom families of Irish and Italian stock - were rolling steadily east from New York City's crowded boroughs and the church was running to keep up.

The diocese took off and Kellenberg led it. A sometimes gruff but loving man dubbed "the German Shepherd," he was a kind of Robert Moses of the diocese.

Still, the beginning was humble. The diocese had to set up its chancery offices in the basement of what was then St. Agnes High School next to the cathedral. Up above, the church functionaries could hear basketballs bouncing or chairs moving in a room that served as a gym and an auditorium.

The lack of facilities extended to many of the growing parishes. Our Lady of Lourdes in Massapequa Park held some activities in a barn. St. Francis de Chantal in Wantagh met in a firehouse. Parishioners at St. Rose of Lima in Massapequa worshiped in a converted bar, the Wagon Wheel.

Long Island's Catholics were so devoted to their faith - and to instilling it in their children - that when sign-up day came for one Catholic elementary school in Freeport in 1959, 300 people lined up overnight in 40-degree weather to seek spots for 100 children.

A thriving diocese

By 1963, the diocese's growth rate was triple the national average, according to Sister Joan de Lourdes Leonard's "Richly Blessed: The Diocese of Rockville Centre," a 1991 history of the diocese.

To keep up, Kellenberg built. In the diocese's first four years of life, he helped build 22 new elementary schools, 11 churches, seven rectories, 22 parish auditoriums and 18 convents.

One of his biggest achievements was the construction of four Catholic high schools: Holy Trinity in Hicksville, Maria Regina in Uniondale, Holy Family in South Huntington and St. John the Baptist in West Islip. He raised $25 million, an astounding sum at the time. He did it by organizing 35,000 volunteers who asked for donations from 225,000 families.

Kellenberg also built a $3-million minor seminary in Uniondale for high school-age boys thinking of becoming priests - although few did.

By 1964 Rockville Centre became the first diocese in the nation to apply for a license to run an instructional television station. Six years later, Telecare went on the air, with programs that included sixth-grade math classes and broadcasts of Masses for the homebound.

t was a heady time. The Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, had sparked in many in the church a new sense of mission, as Mass began to be celebrated in English rather than Latin and many priests and nuns headed into some of the poorest neighborhoods to serve the underprivileged.

In 1966, the diocese set a record for sending men and women into religious life. In 1968, enrollment at the diocese's 92 schools peaked at 78,900 students, compared with 34,885 in 69 schools today. And yet, the seeds of decline also were being planted.

The 1960s were turning the country and the world upside down. Social divisions opened over civil rights, then Vietnam, then the rise of the counterculture. As the 1960s ended, "secularization" was in. Sunday Mass was not. Challenging authority, increasingly, was the norm, and the narcissistic nickname for the 1970s - the "Me Decade" - could not have been more out of step with the values of the church.

School woes

As the 1980s beckoned, vocations dropped off even more, and many priests, nuns and brothers started leaving religious life, creating turmoil at schools that relied on them. More costly lay teachers took their places.

Even as far back as 1974, the diocese was giving its still new-looking high schools a $600,000 yearly subsidy to keep them afloat, according to Leonard.

Meanwhile, a new bishop walked into the tumult - John McGann, Kellenberg's longtime assistant. McGann was a people's bishop, a highly popular man with a common touch. His installation in June 1976 took place not at St. Agnes Cathedral but at the Nassau Coliseum, to allow for a bigger crowd. Some 15,000 people showed up. "It was the most spectacular spectacular I think we ever had," said Msgr. George Graham.

The charismatic McGann had to make some tough decisions in an atmosphere of decline (though many now criticize him for not handling abuse cases with sufficient force). In December 1983 he announced the closing of Holy Trinity and Maria Regina high schools. Parents opposed the move and rented out the coliseum to protest. The schools were reopened by two religious orders - the Franciscan brothers and the Marianists - who changed the names to St. Anthony's and, eventually, Kellenberg Memorial.

McGann also shut down the St. Pius X minor seminary in Uniondale, arguing that few of the students were going on to become priests and it was a costly endeavor.

By 1978 the diocese faced fiscal problems severe enough that McGann instituted the first Bishop's Annual Appeal, seeking donations from the faithful to keep the diocese going. It started with a goal of $5 million, which rose to $8 million by 1990.

While coping with decreasing donations and Mass attendance, McGann still forged the way for changes in the diocese set into motion by the Second Vatican Council. Lay women and men could now distribute Holy Communion. Girls could serve on the altar at Mass. Laymen could be ordained as permanent deacons to help officiate at Mass.

"This was a very thriving diocese under McGann," said Dan Bartley, a leader of Voice of the Faithful. He added that McGann established one of the best adult education programs in the country.

McGann also carved out a niche as an activist on social issues that related to church teachings. He advocated for nuclear disarmament, preached against abortion, encouraged governments and private enterprise to create more affordable housing, and spoke out against the U.S. government's role in Central America in the 1980s.

McGann made headlines with his activism on behalf of Latin American causes, and he worked energetically to manage the demographic and cultural challenges before the diocese, but when he celebrated his 20th anniversary as bishop in 1996, there was another milestone, this one more stark.

Not a single priest was ordained that year.

To many Catholics, what became known as the "priest shortage" represented some larger lethargy in their storied ranks.

It's Sunday. Where was everyone?

"It became commonplace to say you only go to Mass if you feel like it on Sundays, or you only go to Mass if 'you get something out of it,'" Murphy said, adding that in his opinion many Catholics who felt that way were missing the point.

"We go to Mass because every human being has an obligation to worship God, no matter what your particular faith may be," he said. "This isn't a service station so that as long as we please you, you keep coming back. Well, that's selling a product. It's the fact that this is where you encounter God."

The Rev. Joseph W. Staudt, pastor of Christ the King in Commack, said he was in a local store not long ago when a young boy approached him. His mother quickly yanked him away, seemingly afraid the priest might do something to him.

The small episode could only have occurred amid arguably the greatest test for the diocese - the priest sex abuse scandal that unfolded in 2002.

One man's burden

On Long Island, it has fallen to Murphy to guide the diocese's response. He succeeded James T. McHugh. The former Camden, N.J., bishop and outspoken anti-abortion activist did not last long in the post - he was stricken by cancer and died in December 2000 after only one year at the helm.

Murphy took over barely a week before the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Then the sex abuse scandal broke in 2002 in Boston, where Murphy had served as auxiliary bishop under Archbishop Bernard Law. Murphy's early days here were difficult in part because, as Law's right-hand man, he was seen by some here as a figure of suspicion.

The crushing blow on Long Island came in February 2003 when Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota released a withering grand jury report. Citing an internal diocesan memo, the report said that by 2002 there were abuse allegations on record against at least 58 priests (many then inactive).

An uproar followed. Many Catholics said the revelations underscored how an insular hierarchical culture rooted in centuries past had run amok And beyond the scandal, Murphy's refusal to meet with the Voice of the Faithful - the main reform group on the Island - was interpreted by many as needlessly confrontational, as was his removal of nuns from campus ministries in favor of more evangelical priests.

No indictments

The grand jury did not issue indictments because the statute of limitations had expired on the cases, although two local priests went to jail after pleading guilty to sexual abuse charges involving boys. At least eight others, beyond the statute of limitations, were defrocked by the diocese. Wcela, who became auxiliary bishop in 1988, said church officials had worked "on the idea that you could send these people away for rehabilitation some place and then get them back and go to work again."

He added that another assumption was that "this is a sin. And if it's a sin, you go to confession and you can start again. But it's not just a sin. It's something much deeper than that."

Staudt, of Christ the King, is furious at the priests who committed the abuses, who he believes tainted them all. "I was embarrassed and angry at priests who betrayed their trust and destroyed lives," he said, adding that they have all become exceedingly careful. "We are all running paranoid now. The church did put a priest up on a pedestal. The mighty in a sense have fallen."

Sunday donations did not fall appreciably at Christ the King, but they did elsewhere across the diocese.

Edward Thompson, a Voice of the Faithful member from Farmingdale, has conducted an oral history of dozens of diocesan priests for a project to mark the 75th anniversary of the seminary, which arranged for him to do it. He said he believes the vast majority of the priests are "a truly altruistic group of men who devoted their lives to helping people."

But the institution of the church itself is more like an "aging, feudal giant that is dying," and will go out of existence unless it reforms, Thompson said.

Other consequences

Besides the devastated families and the bishop's squaring off against his critics, the scandal has had smaller, little known consequences: On the doors of offices and other private spaces where priests and other church workers meet with parishioners, small windows have been installed. Diamond-shaped, these "vision panels" allow anyone passing by to peer in to see what is happening.

Some of the faithful see signs of renewal and hope for the future.

Murphy and others say that young people in particular are finding the values of a society based on materialism to be superficial and unsatisfying. He said they are looking for something better - something deeper. Many young people "are really thirsty to know the Lord," Murphy said. "We want to bring young people into the church."

At a recent "Proud 2B Catholic Youth Fest" held at St. Anthony's High School in South Huntington, what some call the new spirit seemed to be on display. Rockville Centre native Christina Schuerger, 29, sold T-shirts that said, "Cool to be Catholic," while hundreds of teenagers took part in activities including workshops and Christian music concerts.

She said she converted to Catholicism several years ago because she felt "really empty. ... There was no substance in my life."She found herself disenchanted by a society that she says pressures teenagers and young adults to indulge in drugs and pre-marital sex. The church, she added, has given her life new meaning, in part with a message "to be nice to other people, and not just focus on yourself."

She is precisely the kind of person who is giving Murphy and others hope as the Diocese of Rockville Centre heads into the second half of its first 100 years.

At Christ the King, a mainly white parish, activities continue at a whirlwind. The parish now has 41 official ministries, ranging from CYO sports to vacation bible school to evening prayers focusing on Mary.

Church life

On a recent Saturday, families crowded into the basement of a church building as their children prepared to walk over to the church and make their first Holy Communion. Small girls wore white dresses, and the boys crisp new suits. The families were young, underscoring how the church remains a vital institution for some.

The parish "is a source of refuge where the family gets together," said Rafael Collado, 37, whose twin sons Christopher and Jonathan, 7, were wearing ties and jackets. "It's the glue for the community. It's at the forefront" of their lives.

But others acknowledged they were not regular attendees at Mass and had fallen victim to outside pressures for their time such as soccer games and other activities that kept them busy on Sundays - a day which traditionally had enjoyed church as its centerpiece.

Russ Trifilo, 39, said he and his family often "get caught up" with other activities on Sundays, which have "become a main part of the week."

Many church officials say that one of their biggest challenges is reaching out to what many call "cafeteria Catholics." These are the sometime worshipers who pick and choose the religious activities they take part in, and who increasingly mix solemn religious sacraments with big parties featuring lavish presents they bestow on their children.

More broadly, the church believes its basic values are under assault by the monolithic and materialistic "mall" culture that is pervasive throughout much of the country and Long Island. In Massachusetts recently, Murphy said he noticed a bumper sticker that said, "Whoever has the most toys at the end wins." His response? "Scary."

"There's something more to life than material goods," Murphy said. "To that extent we [the church] have to be countercultural. I would not be doing my job if I don't remind people about the dignity of their humanity."

At Christ the King's monthly social for senior citizens, some of the guests talked about the other activities they engage in with the church. Marie Scalisi, 82, said she is part of a group that drives into Manhattan once a month to deliver bag lunches to homeless people outside a shelter on East 29th Street.

"It gives me a good feeling," Scalisi said. "It feels like I'm doing something for somebody."

She belongs to another group that makes rosary beads that are sent around the world to the faithful, from soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq to inmates at the Riverhead jail. They had to make camouflage brown and black rosary beads for the soldiers because white might be seen at night and expose them to sniper fire.

The church "is our second home right now," said Scalisi, a widow like many of the women in the group. "I don't know what I would do without it."


1957 2007

1.8 million Long Island population 2.8 million

483,000 LI Catholic population 1.4 million

113 Parishes 134

324 Total number of priests 471

1:1,491 Priest-parishioner ratio 1:3,397

47,000 Children attending Catholic schools 34,885

11 Staff, Catholic Charities 600

NOTES: SOME data are estimated; some 2007 data are form 2003, the last year for which figures were available.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.