It stands majestically on Northern Boulevard between 157th and 158th streets in Flushing, the tolling of the bells from its iconic tower summoning the people to come and worship within.
A neighborhood fixture, St. Andrew Avellino Roman Catholic Church recently kicked off a year-long celebration to mark its centennial anniversary, with all kinds of special events scheduled to mark the occasion over the coming months.
Born Lancelotto Avellino, a canon lawyer and priest for the diocese of Naples, the church’s namesake was famous for his preaching and for administering to the spiritual needs of his people, as well as being credited with many miracles, both in life and after his death.
The church, the only one in America with St. Andrew Avellino as its patron saint, according to the current pastor, the Rev. Joseph Holcomb, was organized in 1914, some 300 years after Avellino’s death.
Today, the church stands as a testament to what its pastor refers to as “the people’s faith.” He also credits its century-long success to a community that “has remained relatively stable.”
That is not to imply that the church has not changed with the times. According to Holcomb, who has been the pastor there since 2009 but whose history with the church dates to 1980, when he began a six-year commitment as a parochial vicar, the church began offering Masses aimed at the increasing Hispanic community in the area three years ago. He indicated that other groups in the neighborhood, including Koreans and Filipinos, are also being accommodated.
“We invite all nationalities of Catholics to celebrate Mass here,” he said.
The practice is in keeping with the church’s mission statement, which reads in part, “We strive to be a caring, welcoming and inclusive Christian community growing in our faith formation and our commitment to serving others.”
In turn, the pastor has found the area’s Catholics “have been very supportive of the church.”
The 10:30 a.m. Mass on June 9 officially marked the beginning of the anniversary celebration. With an estimated 700 in attendance, the Most Reverend Guy Sansaricq, auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn, was the celebrant at the Mass. Holcomb served as emcee, and the Rev. John Costello, a 1977 graduate of the church’s parish school, was the special guest speaker.
Returning to the church seems to be a frequent occurrence. According to Holcomb, over the past century the church has had the most vocations to the priesthood or religious life, including nuns and brothers, of any church in the United States.
“There’s something about the place that makes you stay,” said Jodi DeGrotta, a member of the centennial committee. “Father Holcomb has infectious enthusiasm. He’s keeping it alive.”
Other members of the committee were also quick to heap praise on the pastor. “He’s energetic,” said Joe Brostek, who marveled that when the banner was raised on the building’s facade proclaiming the special anniversary, Holcomb “went up in the lift to personally take a look. It was hands-on. He’s great. He interacts with the young and the old.”
For 49 years, Mary Ann Dorsa has been a parishioner at St. Andrew Avellino’s, which she refers to as “a church of the league of nations” because of its cultural diversity. Among the changes she has seen is the placement of the baptismal font at the center of the church. “The beautiful saints chapel was the old baptismal,” she said. The room, she said, is now used for reflection.
Twenty-five-year member Michele Ferone calls St. Andrew Avellino’s “a second home. There is a sense of love, a sense of pride.” Approximately one-fourth of the parents with children in the adjoining school were once students there themselves.
And of course the church’s service extends beyond worship and education.
According to Holcomb, for the past 28 years, the church has run a homeless shelter for men in its basement, with parishioners manning it and doing all the cooking from November until just before Easter each year.
The church also hosts a senior citizens’ club, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Boy and Girl Scout troops and various athletic and recreation programs.
The pastor pointed to the building as “a beautiful place to worship,” adding, “If you make it a warm and loving place, it becomes more of an attractive place.”
The original parish, established in 1914, stood at the corner of 158th Street and Northern Boulevard, according to the pastor. When the current church was built in 1940, the old one was demolished. The rectory was built in its place.
One of the highlights of the centennial celebration will be a “Heart of Italy” nine-day pilgrimage, scheduled for February of next year. Participants will have an audience with Pope Francis and visit several cities, including Rome, Sorrento and Pompeii, as well as Naples, where they will visit the tomb of St. Andrew Avellino.
“We’ll celebrate Mass at his tomb,” the reverend said. “We’re getting back to our roots.”
The culminating celebration will take place on June 1, 2014, with a special Mass, followed by a gala dinner dance.