This year, St. Theresa Parish celebrates the 85th anniversary of its founding as an Italian national parish. Born of humble beginnings, the growth of the parish over the years is truly a testament to the idea of being a community of faith.
In 1925, Monsignor Bonaventure J. Filitti came to the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx to establish a Catholic parish for the Italian community. Designated an "Italian national parish" it would technically have no boundaries, but be open to all Italian Catholics anywhere in the United States.
At that time, Pelham Bay was far from the heavily populated, suburban neighborhood it is today. Indeed, the Bronx itself had only recently seceded from Westchester County and become part of New York City. Farmland covered much of what we now know as Mulford, Mayflower, Pilgrim and Wilkinson Avenues. Where now prominently stands 1950 Hutchinson River Parkway was a water-logged swamp with a meadow and dirt road running through it. One house stood where Hutchinson River Parkway now meets St. Theresa Avenue. A chicken market occupied the area where Mulford Avenue meets Wilkinson Avenue and the area between Pilgrim Avenue and Mayflower Avenue hosted goat farms.
It was into this arena that Msgr. Filitti built his parish church at the intersection of Pilgrim Avenue and what was then an extension of Morris Park Avenue. A beautiful garden and grotto were placed next to the church on Morris Park Avenue extending to Mayflower Avenue and the rectory was housed in a small building on Mayflower Avenue. Until the original church was built, Msgr. Filitti offered mass in the homes of the parishioners. The area began building up in the 1930's when the Italian immigrants who originally settled in the Harlem section of Manhattan began to move to the Bronx, and to Pelham Bay in particular.
Msgr. Filitti served at St. Theresa Parish until 1946 when a priest named Fr. Mario J. Ponsiglione was transferred from Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Yonkers, NY, to the young parish of St. Theresa. Within the next 20 years, St. Theresa Parish experienced great growth.
The post World War II baby boom saw an increase in families with young children becoming parishioners at St. Theresa's. Fr. Ponsiglione saw a need to educate these children in the Catholic tradition. Anthony DePace, a trustee of the parish and professional architect accepted the task of designing a school building.Groundbreaking for the school began in December, 1953 at the southwest corner of Morris Park Avenue between Pilgrim and Mayflower Avenues across the street from the church. Delays occurred in the excavation of the plot and the construction of the school so that the first classes were held in the rectory meeting room and church hall. Fr. Ponsiglione obtained the services of the Dominican Sisters from the Sparkill, NY community to staff the new school as principal and faculty and by September, 1955 classes began for grades 1 through 4 with Sr. Mary Bernard as the first principal. Now that there was a school staff, a convent was needed to house the Dominican Sisters. New construction began and the cornerstone for the convent was put in place in 1955.
This was followed by a new rectory building in 1965. By this time, Fr. Ponsiglione had been elevated to the title of monsignor by the late Francis Cardinal Spellman.
St. Theresa Parish was now truly blessed. There was a church which served the spiritual needs of the community, a school to educate the children, and living quarters and administrative offices for the school and parish staff. But who would have known that it was not time to rest?
On February 7, 1965, tragedy struck. Our church was consumed by fire. Countless people watched from the streets and from their homes on Pilgrim and Morris Park Avenues as flames shot out of the stained glass windows and destroyed the church. Witnesses reported a tearful Msgr. Ponsiglione, concerned that the Blessed Sacrament was still in the church tabernacle, may fall victim to this inferno. When it was over, the beautiful testimony to the foresight of Msgr. Filitti lay in ruins. The faithful had lost their house of worship. But from its ashes, another was to rise in its place.
Almost immediately plans began to rebuild the church. Anthony DePace was, once again, called upon to present plans for a new church building. The new church would be a modern building reflecting the changes that had taken place during the second Vatican council of the mid-1960's. But what would the faithful do in the meantime for Sunday Mass?
A temporary altar was placed on the stage in the school auditorium and the seven Sunday masses were offered there until the new church would be ready. A small organ provided the music, a lectern was placed on one end of the stage as a pulpit and another on the other end of the stage for the readings before the gospel, and chairs were set up on the gym floor for the congregation.
It took five years to complete the new church. The cornerstone was put in place in 1969 and the church was dedicated by his Eminence, Terence Cardinal Cooke, on May 17, 1970, the forty-fifth anniversary of the canonization of St. Theresa. Shortly before the dedication of the new church, the NYC council honored St. Theresa Parish by approving a change in the name of the street that ran in front of the church, rectory, school and convent from Morris Park Avenue to St. TheresaAvenue. Four years later, Msgr. Mario J. Ponsiglione, at 75 years of age, retired as pastor.
Parish life went on under the leadership of Msgr. Robert Mazziotta who was named pastor upon the retirement of Msgr. Ponsiglione. Msgr. Mazziotta served as pastor until 1980 when health concerns caused him to request a transfer to a parish closer to his family on Staten Island. He was followed by Msgr. John Guido who served as pastor until his retirement in 1991.
The retirement of Msgr. Guido presented a challenge for St. Theresa's Parish. As a sign of the times, school enrollment had fallen from over 500 students to 170 students. Many people had moved out of the parish. St.Theresa's needed an energy boost to survive.
That energy boost came in the person of Fr. Robert F. Grippo who was named pastor to replace the now retired Msgr. Guido. Fr. Grippo was actually returning to St. Theresa's where he was assigned as a deacon from September 1971 to May 1972 serving under Msgr. Ponsiglione. Like his predecessor, Fr. Grippo saw needs in the parish and began to meet them.
Recognizing the need for early educational training, he worked with the then principal, Mrs. Burr, to create a pre-kindergarten program. The now empty convent was renovated to house the Pre-K and Kindergarten programs thus becoming an early learning center. He introduced a sports council to oversee the now expanded CYO sports program which had grown from a 7th and 8th grade boys' basketball team with a team of cheerleaders to a program that today boasts six interscholastic basketball teams of various age groups for both boys and girls, an intramural basketball program, a basketball clinic, two squads of cheerleaders and a softball team.
A parish council was formed to act as an advisory board to the pastor. Consisting of 21 members elected by the parishioners, the parish council assists the pastor with a variety of issues that confront the parish. There is a youth council, Teen and Pre-teen center to meet the needs and to challenge the young people of our parish, and, of course, there is the St. Theresa Parish Feast, the annual summer street festival held at the end of July each year since 1996.
However, parish organizations and fund-raisers were not the only challenges for Fr. Grippo. St. Theresa Church was now over 20 years old, the school and convent were close to 40 years old. The school was in danger of being closed for lack of enrollment. Fr. Grippo embarked on two major capital improvement drives, one in the mid-1990's to affect many needed repairs to the parish buildings and one in 2001 to replace the air conditioning systems in the church and the school. Additionally, he saw the school enrollment gradually increase under the leadership of principals Miss Elaine Ludwig and Miss Anne Gevlin so that over 500 children are educated at St. Theresa's School and an additional 120 are enrolled in the religious education program.
Every parish at some point establishes organizations to assist with its various ministries and our own St. Theresa Parish is no different. After being established in 1927, the St. Theresa Altar Society began in 1930 as the very first parish organization. Led by Mrs. Rose Sibilio, the mother of Michael Sibilio, a former parish trustee and parish attorney, these women helped clean the church and would wash the altar linens. Today, the Altar Society also serves as parish hostesses at various parish functions.
The Altar Society was quickly followed by the Holy Name Society which also debuted in 1930. The purpose of the Holy Name Society is to further the Holy Name of Jesus. They also took a role as ushers at certain Sunday masses. In addition to their religious purpose, the Holy Name Society also began to sponsor a series of social events for the people of the parish such as: dances, theme parties, beauty contests. Who remembers the "Holy Name Father and Son Communion Breakfast" and the "Mother and Daughter Communion Breakfast" at the old Bruckner Manor? The Holy Name Society grew so muchover the years that at one point there were actually three sub-organizations, the Italian Holy Name Society, the American Holy Name Society and the Holy Name Squires, for younger men seeking to pursue the goals of the Holy Name Society.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society began in March, 1937. It was a charitable organization which sought to help those in need in the parish. Years before the “Midnight Run” the men of the St. Vincent de Paul Society would collect clothes and food for those who were in need; they would give financial assistance to students whose families suffered some financial hardship and could not pay the school tuition; they would provide a Christian funeral and burial for those who died with no family to make the arrangements. This group of dedicated men would meet on Friday nights when abstinence from meat was still the rule. After the meeting, they would socialize but since it was Friday, the only thing they could eat was cheese. This fact got them the nickname, "The Cheese Club."
In 1985, Msgr. Guido introduced the ministry of the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. This group of men and women assisted with the distribution of communion at Mass. Today, this group has grown to the extent that the "Eucharistic Ministers" not only assist at Mass, but also bring the Eucharist to those who are homebound or hospitalized.
Of course, over the years, many other organizations developed. As the school grew, a parent organization was formed to assist the school in its development. Originally called the "Parents Guild," this group has now evolved into the St. Theresa Home School Association. Two social events the Parents Guild would sponsor were the Columbus Day Dance and the St. Patrick's Day Dance. The Parents Guild also organized a Christmas Fair which began as a type of flea market in the school cafeteria and auditorium. Today, our H.S.A. sponsors many events during the course of the school year such as The St. Theresa Annual Dinner Dance, a Halloween Costume Party, a Mother and Son Bowling Party, a Father and Daughter Dinner Dance, Easter Bunny Breakfast, and an Annual Bake Sale, Mother's Day Plant Sale and Christmas Boutique.
Today, St. Theresa's hosts many other organizations that assist in its ministry of serving the faithful. There is the RCIA program that prepares adults for Baptism and other sacraments; the Pre-Cana Team which offers a marriage preparation seminar for those preparing for the sacrament of matrimony; the Midnight Run, which distributes food and clothes to the poor in Manhattan; the Altar Servers – originally a group of school boys who would assist at the altar during Mass, and now members include both boys and girls of the school; The Knights of the Sacred Heart, a group of high school young men who assist at certain masses on Sunday; The St. Theresa Youth Group; The St. Theresa Proclaimers, who proclaim the old and new testament readings before the gospel at Sunday mass; The Societies of Our Lady of Montevirgine and Our Lady of Abondanza, two religious, Italian cultural groups.
One cannot attend mass at St. Theresa's without hearing themusic of the Adult Choir at the 12:15 PM Mass and the Children’s Choir at the 10:30 am Mass. Remember Vincent Criscruolo whose tenor voice filled the church in the 1960's and 1970's. Remember Frank Boulet whose rich baritone voice led the congregation in song throughout the late 1970's and 1980's.
Who remembers the folk groups that played music at the children and teen masses in years gone by? Developed by Fr. Herbert D'Argenio, who served at St. Theresa's from 1959 through 1975, the Teen Folk Group consisted of three guitar players, Lenny Seiter, Emil Pulichiccio and Timothy Fitzgerald. These young men also led the congregation in song. Later they were joined on special occasions by two female singers, Margaret Hausman and Deborah DiFiore. On occasion, George Vatore, a trumpet player and graduate of St. Theresa School, would contribute his talent.
Additionally, in 1970, Sr. Theresa Frances, the school principal and Sr. William Francis, one of the 8th grade teachers, formed a children's folk group to provide music at the 9 o'clock children's mass. Over the years guitar players such as Michael Napolitano, Michael Arena, Andrew Ippolito, Joe Contino, Julius DiFiore, Anthony Lombardo, Jeffrey Hendricks, Frank Segreti, Terence Travers and Nicky Cappa would supply the music while Michael Troccoli, Steve Marrinaccio, Frank Greco, and Benny and Robert Alfano would lead the school children in chorus after chorus of such old folk tunes such as, "Hear, Oh Lord", "Shout From the Highest Mountain", "Go Forth", "Alive in Christ", and the songs from Godspell, such as "Day by Day" and "Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord."
Of course, the story of St. Theresa Parish does not end today. What began as a need to serve the Italian immigrant population of New York back in the 1920's has grown into a rich diverse community of faith. In looking back on St. Theresa's history, we can celebrate where we've been and anticipate where we are headed in the future.