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Former Pastors      History of Latino Community

1894 - 1994

The Situation in 1894

The year was 1894. It was the year Thomas Edison opened America's first cinema, the Kinetoscope,
in New York. War broke out between China and Japan. In France, Capt. Alfred Dreyfuss was convicted on a false treason charge. "Coxey's Army" of the unemployed marched on Washington. President Grover Cleveland was halfway through the second of his two discontinuous terms as President of the United States. It was two years after the quadricentennial of Columbus' discovery
of America. Major league baseball was rapidly establishing itself as the "national pastime" with the current National League champion, Baltimore, beating out the teams from Brooklyn, New York, and Boston. The City of Greater New York did not yet exist, awaiting its creation in 1898 by the merger of the cities of New York, Brooklyn, and Long Island City, the county of Richmond, and the towns of Flatbush, New Utrecht, and Gravesend in Kings County and Flushing, Jamaica, Newtown, and the part of the town of Hempstead known as Rockaway in Queens County. And in May of that year, Bishop Charles McDonnell, the second bishop of Brooklyn, established our parish, the second of the
Queens parishes he founded. We take for granted the existence of our parish as it is now. But Woodside, Queens, and the Catholic Church itself were very different entities in the nineteenth century and earlier. We need to look at history to understand better how we got here.

The Christian Faith Comes to Queens

The history of Catholicism on Long Island is of relatively recent origin in terms of the universal Church. The earliest settlers were the Maerack tribe of the Delaware Indians, who referred to Long Island as "Seawanaka" or the "island of shells." Europeans approached with the 1524 arrival in New York Harbor of Giovanni da Verrazano, who did not, however, explore Long Island. According to some historians, Estevan Gomez, a Portuguese navigator for the King of Spain, also entered the harbor and sighted Long Island on June 29, 1534, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, thus naming it "the Island of the Apostles." However, true European colonization in the area began only with the arrival of the Dutch under Henry Hudson in 1609. In 1640, English colonists from Connecticut began to settle in eastern Long Island. Later, in what was to become Queens County, English settlers established the village of Newtown: unsuccessfully at Maspeth in 1642; successfully at today's Elmhurst in 1652. Newtown embraced today's Woodside. Later came the villages of Flushing (1645) and Jamaica (1656). Far Rockaway was settled as part of the town of Hempstead, established in 1644. The English took the city of New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, renaming it "New York." In the period from the English takeover until the American Revolution, Queens enjoyed very slow growth, with farming and fishing the chief occupations. Since New York City extended only up to about the City Hall area during most of this time, Queens would have been considered "way out in the country" to most Manhattanites. Queens was slow to be settled particularly because of its swampy terrain, frequently broken by numerous streams. As late as 1800, there were only 6,000 settlers in all of what are today Queens and Nassau. Federal Census figures of 1790 indicate large farms were operating in Woodside and Sunnyside at this time.

Woodside Begins to Develop

Early settlements were near the site later chosen for St. Sebastian's Church. Joseph Sackett built a farmhouse at Woodside Avenue and today's 58 Street, near the Snake Woods. Thomas Cumberson owned a house and tannery along 58 Street, near Rattlesnake Spring. Not far away, Thomas Morrell owned property in the Maspeth Kills. The Sackett farm was bought in 1826 by John Andrew Kelly and his sister (or perhaps sister-in- law), Mrs. Catharine Buddy. Kelly's son, John A.F. Kelly, coined the term "Woodside" in the column he wrote for the Independent Press, a Brooklyn newspaper. The Sackett-Kelly home was the site of the current school of St. Sebastian.

Transportation Causes Woodside to Grow

The crucial events in Woodside's growth pertained to transportation. In 1860, the road we know as Northern Boulevard was opened to connect the town of Flushing with the 34 Street ferry to Manhattan. In 1861, the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) built a route from Hunter's Point and opened a station at today's 60 Street and Woodside Avenue. In 1867, Woodside was laid out as a village. In 1869, a train station was built by the Flushing and North Side Railroad at 58 Street and 38 Avenue. In 1868, a developer named Benjamin Hitchcock became interested enough to drain the swamps and become one of the earliest real estate agents to promote the sale of plots of land (972 of them, to be exact) on the "installment plan." The first Woodside post office came in 1864 and the first public school in 1872. The first church was St. Paul's Protestant Episcopal in 1873. By 1888, many old farms had disappeared, but some continued into the twentieth century.

Business development came early to Woodside. In 1864, Gabriel Marc purchased land for his plant nurseries at Woodside Avenue and Northern Boulevard. In 1874, the Woodside Wine Company was founded to process Long Island grapes. Around this time, Riker, Hudson and Company was founded for the canning of neighborhood garden produce, soon turning out 8,000 cans of tomatoes daily.

Of special note is the founding of the first fire company in Woodside, the Hook and Ladder Company in 1878, with William Cameron, a member of an old local family, as its first foreman. The firehouse bell, originally cast for an East River steamboat named the Sylvan Dell, became the church bell of the original St. Sebastian Church and now is proudly ensconced in front of the rectory.

Catholic Presence in Queens and Brooklyn

Where might the Catholics of early Woodside (if indeed there were any) have attended Mass? Before 1822, they might have traveled by carriage and ferry to the parish of St. Peter's on Barclay Street or old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street in Manhattan. In 1822, the first parish of what would later become the Diocese of Brooklyn was officially established at St. James. It was near the recently established U.S. Brooklyn Navy Yard, which employed many immigrant Catholic workers. The second pastor of that parish, Fr. John Walsh, began riding out to the small number of Catholics scattered in the rural county of Queens and celebrated the first Masses in Queens at Flushing (1826) and Astoria (1835).

The gradual growth of Queens called forth a response from New York's Catholic leaders. The first mission established in Queens was in Flushing in 1833 at what was to become St. Michael's Parish. In 1841, the Rev. Michael Curran, a Harlem priest, crossed by boat to say Mass and hear confessions where Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish was later established in Astoria. The year 1853 saw the establishment of the Diocese of Brooklyn, comprising all of Long Island's 1,000 square miles as a separate ecclesiastical entity.

Catholic Parishes in Woodside

We cannot say with certainty where any Catholics in this part of Newtown might have attended Mass until 1854 with the establishment of St. Mary's parish in Winfield, the "mother church" of Woodside. The industry that was the first to attract large numbers of workers, among them Catholic immigrants, was the Winfield Foundry, founded in 1849 at what is now 69 Street and 47 Avenue. Its chief products were sewing machine parts and cast-iron caskets. It may be presumed that the proximity to Calvary Cemetery, established by the Archdiocese of New York in 1848, contributed to the success of this factory. It is well documented that the town of New- town generated a substantial part of its revenue from a burial tax levied on the numerous cemeteries within its borders.

The pastors of St. Mary's came to be founders of several other missions and new parishes, including the parishes of St. Anthony in Greenpoint (1856), St. Margaret in Middle Village (1860), Our Lady of Sorrows in Corona (1871), St. Ignatius in Hicksville (1872), St. Stanislaus in Maspeth (1872), St. Joseph in Astoria (1879), and St. Adalbert in Elmhurst (1892). Later, St. Sebastian's was carved from its territory (1894).

The Founding of St. Sebastian's

A local newspaper serving Woodside at that time recorded that on Sunday, April 22, 1894, "a largely attended meeting was held in Ariel Hall. . .and a committee was appointed to enter into negotiations with real estate owners to procure an available site" and "to confer with Bishop Mc Donnell in relation to obtaining a priest." In May, Bishop Charles Mc Donnell of Brooklyn established the parish of St. Sebastian and asked the pastor of St. Patrick's Parish in Long Island City, the Rev. William Mc Guirl, to celebrate Mass in Woodside periodically until the appointment of the first resident pastor. The following October, Fr. Edward Gannon was named pastor and celebrated the first Masses in Ariel Hall on today's 56 Street, near Woodside Avenue.

Masses were also offered in the Woodside volunteer Hook and Ladder Company #3 House on 39 Avenue, which later served as the American Legion Hall and is now a Korean church. He later rented a large, hexagonal room for services in the home of Mrs. Anne Collins, also on 56 Street, where many baptisms were performed. Fr. Gannon was 35 years old at this time and found in the parish 53 Catholic families comprising 350 individual souls, a figure thought to be about one-half the population of the village, comprising mostly German and Irish people. The Newtown Register of October 4, 1894 announced that Fr. Gannon would celebrate Mass every Sunday, at 8:00 and 10:00 A.M., with a High Mass every first Sunday at 10:00 A.M.

Fr. Gannon faced a difficult task. In his own words:

At the commencement, the aspect of things was not very bright. There was no building site, no church, no house, and, what was most deplorable, no money. That God has blessed the work is evident from the fact that, after months of toil, $11,400 has been collected, a building site has been bought, and the new church is almost completed.

He had purchased 16 lots for the new parish. In addition to the usual fund raisers— entertainments, lawn parties, festivals, and a bazaar- a contemporary newspaper ac- count of the church's opening recounts that Fr. Gannon would walk through the village every evening after dinner with his dog, a St. Bernard named Flo, collecting a dime from each of the 200 households of his congregation. Even before the construction of a church, the sacramental work of the parish commenced. The first child baptized in the new parish was James C. Liddell on October 21, 1894. The first marriage was that of Stephen Kobell and Agnes Molloy on November 17, 1894.

The dedication of the new church occurred on Sunday, June 14, 1896 at the 10:15 A.M. Mass. Bishop Me Donnell presided and Fr. Gannon was the celebrant, aided by visiting priests L.J. Guerin as deacon, T. McGronen as subdeacon, and P.F. O'Hara as preacher. The choir sang a newly composed Mass in honor of St. Seba- stian accompanied by a full orchestra. The architect of the church was F.J. Berlenbach, the builder was E.J. Coles, and the masons were Messrs. Roden and Wise.

By 1902, the authoritative History of Long Island by Peter Ross reported that the congregation of the parish had increased from 300 to more than 1,000, and the number of Sunday school children from 153 to 240.

According to the archives of the Sisters of St. Joseph, originally the Josephite Sisters taught religious instruction here, from about 1895 until 1925 traveling in each week from the former motherhouse in St. Michael's Parish in Flushing. From 1925 until 1928, the Sisters came here weekly from Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Corona. The "iron lady" of this effort was Sister Marie de Lourdes Mallen, who worked 40 years in Flushing and for nearly 30 of them spent every weekend teaching catechism at St. Sebastian's. She was helped by a succession of younger sisters, including Sister Josephine Marie Boutin, Sister Francis Ambrose Daly, and Sister Mary Dulcissima Lavin. Also involved here were Sister Dolorine Maria Finnan, Sister Agnes De Montfort Werner, and Sister Teresa Agnes Me Arthur. The Josephite connection here ceased when the parish school opened in 1928, only to resume in 1993 with the arrival of Sister Dolores Ryan, C.S.J, as Director of Religious Education.

Fr. Gannon died in February 1911 of Bright's disease, having built the original church and the rectory, which is still used to this day. At his funeral, several pastors of Brooklyn parishes assisted. The celebrant was the Rev. Thomas Carroll of St. Vincent de Paul Church, the deacon was the Rev. John T. Woods of Holy Cross Church, the subdeacon was the Rev. John F. O'Hara of St. Matthew Church, and the eulogist was the Rev. Matthew Tierney of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. The Rev. Charles Doyle of Newark was the master of ceremonies. Upon the death of Fr. Gannon, Fr. John Wynne was appointed administrator of the parish for several months, until the appointment of Fr. Walter Kerwin as the new pastor in January 1912. Fr. Kerwin had been here for only two years when he was made pastor of the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace in Coney Island.

First Recorded Parish Society

The earliest reference to a parish society here comes in the September 13, 1894 edition of The New-town Register, which alludes to the "Young Peoples' Aid Society" of the Catholic church in Woodside. It consisted of 30 members, including President Louise Borges, Vice-President Richard Lawlor, Secretary Mary Gavin, Treasurer Mary Gorman, and Sergeant-at-Arms Peter Kelly. It seems fitting that from its very inception, the parish should have been interested in promoting the welfare of its young people.

Twentieth-Century Growth

St. Sebastian's was not a heavily populated parish until several transportation changes. In 1896, the New York and Queens County Railway Company erected its main barns at Woodside Avenue and Northern Boulevard, bringing trolley lines into Woodside. Other openings soon followed: in 1909, the Queensboro (often referred to as the "59th Street") Bridge; in 1910, the LIRR East River tunnel; in 1917, the opening of the ffl train station at 61 Street and Roosevelt Avenue. The population of Queens quadrupled between 1910 and 1930, and St. Sebastian's grew with it.

The establishment of the City Housing Corporation in 1924 to promote private home and apartment building encouraged the rapid growth of Sunnyside. Soon came the Mathews homes along Skillman Avenue (1925). The Christy Gardens at Roosevelt and Woodside Avenues were an early example of co-op apartments in 1925. In 1931 the Phipps Garden Apartments, designed by architects Stein and Wright, opened at 39 Avenue and 50-52 Streets. These award-winning designs have been nationally recognized as a model for elegant urban housing. A major housing development was the opening in 1963 of the "Big Six" towers by the New York Typo- graphical Union at Queens Boulevard from 59 to 61 Streets. These seven buildings of 15 to 18 stories and 982 units, located on more than 12 acres of land, are unique in their possession of private power generators, which provide both economy and reliability. In 1962, the first units of the Berkeley Towers opened on a portion of the old Windmuller estate near P.S. 11, providing Manhattan-like apartments only 10 minutes from midtown. Skyview Towers on 59 Street between 47 and 48 Avenues hold 233 units on the former site of Consumers' Brewery and Park, a nineteenth-century concern. The special needs of the elderly were partly met by the construction in 1982 of 77 units of Sunnywood apartments at 64 Street off Queens Boulevard, under the auspices of Woodside on the Move and Sunnyside Community Services.

The most well-attended Mass in the weekend schedule of St. Sebastian's parish is the twelve o'clock Mass in the Spanish language. The Mass itself is the fo- cal point of a whole range of pastoral efforts with regard to the Spanish-speaking, or Latino, community here in Woodside. At the time of the founding of the parish, it was reported that the 350 parishioners were about equally divided between German and Irish Catholics. In subsequent years, Woodside census data showed a heavy Eastern European background in the neighborhood as well.

According to parish baptismal registers, Spanish surnames begin to appear with frequency in the early 1960's. However, as Mass was celebrated in Latin until 1967, no need arose for Spanish language services in the parish.

The parish began offering Mass in Spanish in 1973 under the pastorate of Monsignor John T. Egan. During the following four years, the parish relied upon Fathers Thomas J. Ryan and Said Sanchez to serve the Spanish-speaking community. Services were held at first in the chapel. In May 1976, census of the Spanish Mass community was taken to find out the origins of the people then attending it. The results showed a great variety of origins: Colombia 141; Dominican Republic 28;

Ecuador 26; Cuba 25; Americans of Hispanic descent 16; Puerto Rico 13; Peru 9; Bolivia 5; Panama 4; Spain 4; Paraguay 3; and one each from Mexico and Honduras.

From 1977 to 1981, Father Fernando Bustamante worked with the Latino community. His great eagerness and dedication resulted in the rapid growth in the number of people attending the Spanish Mass. The chapel was now too small to accommodate all the new people coming to church. Therefore, Mass was moved to the school auditorium and later on to the main church. Likewise, a committee named the Apostolado Hispano was formed, which worked many years organizing different cultural and social activities in our community. A church choir with Spanish-speaking members was also formed under the direction of Mr. Albeiro Ramirez.

From 1981 to 1986 Father Robert M. Robinson began his service with our Latino community. In 1983 for the first time an annual Mass was celebrated in honor of Our Lady of Chiquinquira. In 1984, a small weekly charismatic prayer group was born. Both these events are still regularly functioning.

In 1986, Father Jorge Munoz-Silva was appointed to serve the Latino community of St. Sebastian, and was followed by Father Paul Sanchez. Under Fr. San- chez, the Cursillo de Cristiandad was formed. Later Deacon Ramon Lima joined the parish staff, carrying out the various pastoral functions of the ordained diaconate.

With the death of Monsignor Egan in 1990, Monsignor D. Joseph Finnerty was appointed pastor of the parish. He has continued to support and encourage the concerns and interests of the Latino community. He has made sure that some of the parish personnel both in the rectory and in the church could speak Spanish as well as English so as better to meet those needs.

From the very beginning, Monsignor Finnerty has been careful to respond to the needs of all the parishioners, whatever their language. Communication in both Spanish and English was facilitated by the introduction of the bilingual missalettes, the bilingual songbook, and the bilingual parish bulletins. In addition to Fathers Estrada and Grande, both Monsignor Finnerty and Father Sean Ogle have studied Spanish in either the Dominican Republic or the Diocesan Language Institute in order to serve better the parish's needs.

Father Kenneth J. Grande was assigned to the parish in June 1991 and was the primary minister to the Latino community until the arrival of Father Sabino Estrada in June 1992. Since Father Estrada's arrival coincided with the five-hundredth anniversary of the be- ginning of evangelization in the New World, he initiated his service to the community by forming a specifically pastoral team in accordance with the norms of the Conferencia Episcopal Latinoamericana (Latin-American Episcopal Conference). Its members represent a cross- section of the countries from which our parishioners come. These coordinators meet throughout the year with the pastor, Monsignor Finnerty, and Father Estrada, to plan and coordinate religious, pastoral and social ser- vices to the community.

The parish has offered equally to both Spanish and English-speaking parishioners the opportunity for participation in the Diocesan Pastoral Congress, Lenten and Advent retreats, liturgical minister preparations and parish Penance Services. In Spring 1994, the parish began to offer a second Mass in Spanish, at six o'clock Saturday evening. The enormous Spanish-speaking crowds of Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday each year have been provided for with the addition of two more Spanish Masses to the regular schedule on those days.

In December 1992, Father Estrada started the Christmas Novena to the Divino Nino Jesus (the Divine Child Jesus) with the daily 6:00 A.M. Mass. Monsignor Finnerty is the main celebrant of the closing Mass, including the blessing of the small statues of the Infant Jesus that parishioners bring home after that Mass to place in the family creche. Throughout the Novena, since the time of the beginning of the celebration of the five hundred years of evangelization, every Saturday at the noonday Spanish Mass, a small statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe is exposed in the chapel during the Eucharist. After Mass, the statue is taken to the home of a particular family for a whole week to be returned again on the following Saturday. During this week, the whole family has the chance to present their petitions to the Blessed Mother, aided by a booklet that the family is asked to take along with the statue.

During the summer months, our priest and the Family Pastoral group organize daytrips to different re- creation areas around New York. Each trip is closed with the celebration of Holy Mass outdoors for approximately eighty to one-hundred people. In addition, during the last two years, there has been a Spanish-language re- treat for Advent and Lent. In Lent 1994, the Semana de las misiones was conducted under the direction of Father Juan Diaz Vilar, S.J., in an effort both to renew the commitment to Christ of regular parishioners and to reach out to those not participating in the life of the parish.

The parish also provides for weekly Bible classes and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. In addition, the Young Couple and Family Pastoral groups offer conferences on various family life topics, held on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. Every Friday the Youth Group and Adolescent Group have their own meetings for one hour in the Parish Center.

An illustration of the growth in the parish Latino community is the census taken at the Spanish-language Mass on January 30, 1994 which revealed the following totals about the origins of the congregants. Note the in- crease from the census of 1976: Colombia 751; Ecuador 261; Mexico 146; Dominican Republic 82; Puerto Rico 60; Peru 54; Cuba 28; El Salvador 26; Bolivia 26; Argentina 16; Venezuela 16; Nicaragua 11; Spain 11; Paraguay 10; Costa Rica 8; Honduras 6; Chile 5; Panama 3; Guatemala 1

Another sign of the growth of the Latino Catholic community is the celebration of baptism three Sun- days a month in Spanish. The parish Religious Instruction program offered on Saturdays and Sundays comprises many Latino youngsters, under the direction of Sister Dolores Ryan, C.S.J., who speaks Spanish and worked for several years in Puerto Rico. In 1992 and 1993 our parish also celebrated El dia de la raw (the discovery of the Americas) on October 12. Each of our Spanish-speaking parishioners' countries is represented in procession with its own flag, a gesture well-appreciated by all in the congregation.

Our parish continues to be enriched by people from all over the earth, including those of Latino de- scent. May St. Sebastian's continue to be a welcoming and united community of faith for all striving to work for the kingdom of God. community offered hot chocolate and bread and butter to to all the congregation.

ęCopyright 2013 St. Sebastian