History of The Parish
ST. THOMAS THE APOSTLE
AND MSGR. JOE
The appointment was for 10 a.m. Father Joseph Smith, visibly nervous, sat uncomfortably on one of the chairs in the waiting room outside the bishop's office in the new chancery building on Greene Avenue in Brooklyn, fidgeting with his Roman collar. The weather had been unseasonably hot, this June of 1931, and the combination of heat, humidity and the impending inter view was making him quite jumpy.
"John," he'd asked his brother and fellow priest just yesterday when the summons had arrived from the chancery, "could this mean a parish of my own?" While cautioning him on the dangers of too much optimism, John, himself a pastor at St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn, had added, chuckling, "Well, Joe, you've been hoping for this for some years now. God certainly couldn't find a better partner than you to run a parish with. I'll be praying for you."
He thought of John's words now and glanced impatiently at his pocket watch. The bishop was running a little late, he noted. To distract himself, he turned his attention to the room in which he waited, remembering it was his first time inside this building since it had opened just last October, and stared intently at the somber portraits of the two prior bishops of Brooklyn that hung imposingly on the wall across from him. Bishops Loughlin and McDonnell did little to relieve his anxiety, but stared back at him sternly, some seventy years of diocesan history mirrored in their painted eyes.
The rustle of a cassock alerted him to the presence of the bishop's young priest-secretary who ushered him, without ceremony, into the prelate's office.
Thomas E. Molloy, the third bishop of Brooklyn, came round his desk to greet him. "Joe, I'm so glad to see you again," he said, extending his hand as Father Smith knelt and kissed the episcopal ring. "Here, sit down, sit down. I've some exciting news for you," Molloy smiled, gesturing to a chair at the side of his desk.
How would you like to go back to the Island," the Bishop began and, leaning back in his chair, watched the younger man intently. Molloy had always been sensitive to his priests' feelings in the matters of transfers and appointments and he realized many of them took a dim view of Long Island assignments, seeing such parishes as places of exile. But Joe Smith, he knew, had spent the first nine years of his priesthood on the Island and the bishop instinctively felt he'd be happy to return there. "As a pastor, of course," Molloy continued when Joe Smith's face remained unreadable, and the reaction came then just as he had hoped it would. Eager, enthusiastic.
Both men were more relaxed now and the bishop was frank.
"Joe, I'm going to lay it right on the line. It won't be easy. I'm giving you a parish without a church, parishioners without money. You'll spend more time in the beginning pioneering than pasturing, but there are some 200 Catholics in West Hempstead who've been traveling for too many years over to Our Lady of Loretto and St. Catherine's and I think they deserve a parish and a pastor of their own."
"Just give me a few years, Your Excellency," Father Smith assured him, "and you'll have one of the finest parishes on Long Island. And," he continued, eyes a twinkle as his sense of humor which had deserted him for the past several hours returned, "when we have a church, we'll name it after you." Seeing the bishop's look of surprise, he hastily amended "Your patron saint, of course, St. Thomas the Apostle."
The Chapel by the Depot
Just eleven days later on June 21, in a store-front building on Harborough Road, later called Hempstead Gardens Drive, Father Smith celebrated-the new parish's first Mass with some 250 parishioners crowded into the little structure. It had been an incredibly hectic week or so. He had spent a few days renewing his friendships with the town and village officials, and, through them, heard that a building behind the West Hempstead Bank down by the depot was available for $75 a month. Next on his agenda was a place to live and he had found what he was looking for in a house on 12 Bedell Avenue which would serve as a temporary rectory. With the help of his brother John, he had moved the donated altar, chairs and vestments from John's parish in Brooklyn out to West Hempstead.
The crowds at Mass those first weeks led Father Smith, in one of his first official acts as pastor, to commission a census and, as a result, he added two more Masses to the original schedule. The parish was on its way. The Redemptionist priests came down from Esopus on Sundays to help. Societies were organized and meetings were held frequently in the little chapel. Names became faces for the new pastor; faces became loyal friends.
Early that fall, Bishop Molloy sent a committee of priests to find a permanent site for the church. Several locations were considered and rejected and it wasn't until November,1933 that a corner site at Westminster and Argyle Roads was purchased.
A Permanent Home
Joe Smith stared for a long time at the plans the Brooklyn architects, Meyer & Mathieu, had submitted for a Tudor-Gothic structure. Everything he'd dreamed about was included: stone for permanence, seating for 600 people, a belfry tower, unobstructed views of the high altar, a baptistry and the most modern of sacristies. But he couldn't ignore the bottom line on the construction estimate in front of him from the Estabrook Corporation of Hempstead. It would cost $60,000 to build this church. $60,000 he and his parishioners didn't have. Parish growth had been slower than he'd hoped for. People were hurting. Money was incredibly tight with many parishioners he knew personally losing their homes to the banks as the depression seemed to weigh heavier and heavier on everyone.
Discouraged, he called a few parishioners together and explained his reluctance to begin building in such economically-hard times. "How can we do this," he asked them. "How can we not do it," they replied. The parish wanted and needed a church, they assured him, and urged him to go ahead and they'd help work out the money problems.
The building-fund campaign through the summer of 1934 kept pace with the construction of the new church ansl_by September some $16,000 had been raised, a formidable sum for the Catholics of West Hempstead. It was with a much lighter heart that Father Smith planned the cornerstone-laying ceremonies for September 30. Bishop Molloy sent Msgr. Maurice Fitzgerald as his personal representative, accompanied by many Brooklyn priests and dignitaries who were given "a county police motor cycle escort" with "50 county policemen assigned to the exercises," as the New York Times was to report the next day.
That Christmas of 1934, at an altar banked with red poinsettias and flanked by two perfect eight-foot pine trees, Father Joseph Smith began the Introibo ad altare Dei for the solemn high Midnight Mass that marked the first formal ceremonies held in the new church. Although the official dedication was not to come for several more months, the special meaning of Christmas and the warm response of the more than 800 people who came that cold December evening to be a part of St. Thomas' beginnings made the moment a precious one to linger in memories for years to come.
Dedicating the Church
Have you heard from the Bishop yet, Joe," Father John Smith asked his brother one morning the following Spring as they walked the church grounds discussing the coming dedication on June 16. "He'll be here, John," Joe replied: "Remember, this is a special church for him, for all of us," he said, stressing his last words. Then the younger priest, recalling the support and encouragement he'd received so often in the past four years from this much-loved older brother and confidante, reached out, grasping John's arm, and asked him if he would accept the honor of celebrating the solemn high Mass which would follow the dedication. As celebrant, John would be assisted by his brother, Joe, and 22 other clergymen, including representatives from the Redemptorist, Vincentian and Jesuit Orders, as well as major diocesan officials.
That Sunday dawned bright and clear. Some 2,000 people had gathered for the 10:30 ceremonies and Mass and the overflow crowd spilled down the steps of the church and onto the sidewalks lining Westminster Road as the procession began. Their white surplices freshly laundered, starched and shining in the morning sun, a dozen choir boys, hands joined solemnly, led the bishop and his entourage along the south side of the building, up the stone steps and into what was being described in the newspapers as "the most beautiful church on Long Island." In his address that morning, Bishop Molloy praised the efforts of Father Smith and his hard-working parishioners over the past four, difficult years and expressed his own strong personal feelings for this church that had been named for him and his patron saint, St. Thomas the Apostle.
The Bishop Sends Curates
It was growing obvious that Father Joe could use some help. Within a few weeks of the dedication, St. Thomas received its first curate, Rev. Joseph Lawlor. Father Smith was now able to set into motion plans for the parish's big bazaar and fund raiser. That first bazaar held in September, 1935 , its highlight a raffle for $100 in household furnishings and a Packard bicycle, ran for two weekends, with many of the county supervisors, judges and police, personal friends of Joe Smith, lending their support and prestige on opening night. It was held in the church basement which was to serve for many years for meetings, bazaars, card parties and religious instructions. Gradually, as funds became available, a kitchen was installed, a ceiling replaced the open rafters and hanging pipes, walls and a floor were added and, eventually, a stage and drapes were to provide St. Thomas with a proper center for its parish life until a separate auditorium could be built.
At the turn of the decade, as the war loomed ominously on the horizon, two curates were assigned to St. Thomas Parish - Father Francis T. Dobson in 1939 and Father Charles J. Murphy in 191. These two curates, so dissimilar in disposition a and appearance, were to give more than fifty years of combined service to the parish and, with Joe Smith at the helm, formed a dynamic team that propelled St. Thomas through the dramatic years of growth following World War II. Some twenty-odd years after these young men arnved, Father Joe would tell a reporter for the Long Island Catholic, "these two priests were in everything with me. We built the place together."
A School for St. Thomas
"Charlie, we need a school." Joe Smith, stood, dark brows knitted together, hands clasped behind his back, gazing our the rectory window beyond the garden at the vacant lots that stretched down to Hempstead Turnpike. Without turning his head, he raised his voice and repeated his statement more forcefully to generate an immediate response from his young curate.
Father Charlie Murphy sighed and set aside the Nassau Daily Review Star and the war news he'd been reading over his second cup of breakfast coffee. So many of the young men from the parish he had come to know and like in his years at St. Thomas were involved in what was happening in the Pacific and he wanted to read about it, not discuss an impossible dream with the boss.
See all that property out there," Joe Smith continued, "that's where I'll put our school. You start working on it. Find out who owns it and how much they want and I'll go to the bishop for permission."
Charlie Murphy sighed again. He knew the bishop had placed a moratorium on new construction until the war's end and chances of getting approval to start a school were pretty slim.
But Father Smith was not to be denied. He waved away Father Murphy's reminder of the bishop's ban, reminding him in turn that the bishop had given them permission recently to buy the old Republican club house near the American Legion post down in Lakeview to be renovated into a chapel.
"That's different," Murphy insisted. After some nine years of bussing folks from Lakeview, Masses had been held at an altar in the Legion post for a few years now and Bishop Molloy had understood clearfy the need to provide better facilities.
"The work on the chapel is nearly completed," Joe Smith went on, closing any further discussion on that subject, and, in a softer tone, noted that the war was winding down now after D-Day and the boys would be coming home to marry their sweethearts and begin raising families. "Long Island is where it's all going to happen, Charlie," the pastor dogmatically and prophetically stated. "You'll see. This parish will grow by leaps and bounds in the next ten years and those families will want a good Catholic school for their kids. Mark my words. If we start now, we' 11 be ready when they are."
Now, Charlie Murphy presumed correctly, knowing the boss, meant this exact moment, and forsaking any thoughts of returning to the paper or his coffee, left to do Father Smith's bidding.
A campaign for funds to build St. Thomas School was begun the following year, but it was not until four years later in 1949 that Bishop Molloy gave his official permission and groundbreaking for the new school was held that September.
"Nineteen Fifty, a nice round number. Makes it easy to remember anniversaries," Joe Smith chortled when George Estabrook, the same builder who had constructed the church, told him he'd have the school ready for classes in the fall of that year. On the strength of nearly 200 possible admissions, Father Smith made arrangements with a midwestern Order of teaching Sisters, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to come and teach in the new school. The Sisters were due to arrive in West Hempstead late in August, 1950.
So Father Murphy was not too terribly surprised one Sunday morning when the pastor, vesting for the 10:30 Mass, made another of his pronouncements.
Charlie, we need a convent for these Sisters," he said, sticking his head out the sacristy door and scanning the faces of the people filing into Mass, "but we can't afford to build them one now. Right?" Father Murphy was quick to agree, but wondered aloud just why Father Smith kept watching the people coming in to church.
"I'll tell you why," he said, having another look at the nearly-filled church. "You know Mike Liebl who lives across the street in that big house with the lovely garden. He comes to this Mass every Sunday and I've just spotted him out there in the second pew. Today, I'm going to give a little talk about these good Sisters and how we hays place for them to live. And I'm going to direct that talk at Mr. Liebl."
He shifted the chasuble more evenly on his shoulders, winked at the perplexed Father Murphy and motioned to the altar boys to precede him onto the altar.
Fascinated, the young curate listened from the sacristy as his pastor, eyes never leaving Mike Liebl's face, talked about his dreams of what St. Thomas School would mean for the children of the parish, of the good women of God who were going to fill these children's minds with knowledge and fire their spirits with the love of Christ and his saints, these good Sisters who were arnving shortly without a place to rest their heads, without a home, a con vent of their own.
"I'll bet there's not a dry eye in the house," thought Father Murphy wryly as Mass ended and Joe Smith returned to the sacristy. He was followed moments later by a visibly moved Mike Liebl who walked in and said, simply, "You need my house for a convent. It's yours."
The Sisters Arrive
In a matter of weeks, Mr. Liebl's home at 154 Plum Tree Lane was purchased and became the convent of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the BVM's as they were called. Eight Sisters came that fall. They were joined the following year by six others and by the time the parish celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1956 there were 17 Sisters in residence at Plum Tree Lane.
Painstakingly, the Sisters, under the initial direction of Sr. Catherine Marie, the first principal, and her dynamic and talented successors through the next two decades, Sr. Mary Myles and Sr. Mary Angela Buser, began the task of building an academic program that was to make St. Thomas one of the finest elementary schools on Long Island.
Neighbors leaving for work in the morning became quickly accustomed to the sight of the Sisters in their long, black habits and distinctive "hoods and borders," protected from the elements on even the coldest days by only their heavy shawls, heading two by two across Westminster Road to the school. At lunch hour in the rear school playground facing Buckingham Road, the younger Sisters often played jump rope with the girls on the west side of the road, while the boys, all noise and boundless energy, chased each other across the dirt field that was their domain on the east side.
"Got to do something about that street, Frank," Father Smith said to Father Dobson one afternoon as he anxiously watched a car or two cut through on the graveled road from Hempstead Turnpike. "Can't have traffic where our kids are playing. Won't do, won't do at all," he concluded, reaching for the telephone. The road was soon closed.
Father Murphy was becoming a frequent visitor and fan of the new school. His red hair, freckles and boyish grin, combined with his genuine appreciation of kids and all their needs, made him an immediate favorite. Each time he visited the school to give a religion lesson, or, on Thursdays, to check up on a band practice "no-show" for Father Smith, he marveled at the order and sense of purpose the Sisters had instilled so quickly in the children.
Oh, occasionally, I' d have to pitch an eraser at one of the eighth-grade guys who was feeling his oats a bit in my class," he was to remember years later, "but those kids worked hard. They knew they had to. The Sisters would not accept anything but their best."
A Decade of Growth
As Father Smith had predicted, the 1950's were years of change, not only for St. Thomas but for West Hempstead as well. The community was growing. Newly-built houses could be seen on previously undeveloped sections throughout town, particularly in the southern part of the parish in what the real estate people were referring to as the "Dogwood" section . Young couples with small children began buying the older houses around Spruce and Walnut Streets and up by the church. St. Thomas' neighbors in religion were also seeing their own congregations growing and the Nassau Community Temple, pressed for space in the Quonset hut on Woodfield Road, added a wing for their religious education classes. It wouldn't be too long before the Rabbi would break ground for the new temple on Hempstead Avenue and Woodlawn. Klein's and A&S department stores opened branches, much to the delight of the younger shoppers, although Joe Smith glowered each time he passed the Klein's construction site on the Turnpike.
St. Thomas' parish enrollment numbered 2,200 families by the mid fifties. The new school which had seemed so spacious when construction started in 1950 was soon bursting at the seams with 900 children in the school and another 900 in religious education classes for the public school students. The church was filled to overflowing on Sundays and the little club house that served as the Lakeview chapel was woefully inadequate .
"I'll be at the Garden City Hotel this afternoon," Father Smith told Charlie Murphy as he sailed out the rectory door. "I'm having lunch with that fellow who's working on the Southern State Parkway."
The parkway-widening project, Joe Smith learned at lunch from an apologetic and concerned Robert Moses, was to swing upwards into Lakeview and the old Republican club house that served as St. Thomas' chapel was to fall to the bulldozers.
"That place was much too small, anyway," he said when he returned from lunch. "We'll just have to build ourselves a new chapel." Joseph Mathieu was again called in to design the new building and construction crews were soon hard at work trans forming the scrubby, weed-strewn lots near the pond on the east side of Hempstead Avenue just north of the parkway into the site for a beautiful stone church. Shortly after the chapel was opened in 1955, the Lakeview parishioners undertook the finishing of the basement as a social center, even laying the tile floor themselves .
When the chapel was completed Father Smith turned his attention to the addition of a wing on the school and the construction of a new rectory and began plans to expand the church. As the fifties drew to a close, the parish, which had begun life in a converted building by the depot now had a church, a chapel, a con vent, an auditorium, a school and a soon-to-be completed rectory. The building years were nearly over.
Changes in the Sixties
"Closed circuit TV, gentlemen. It's the only way to go this time" Father Frank Dobson was adamant as he went over the projected attendance figures for the Buckley-Clancy debate that a committee of 25 parishioners had planned for St. Thomas that November of 1962. The series of workshops on topics meaningful to Catholics that these laymen had been running for the past few years had been successful beyond their highest expectations, often drawing more than 800, but this one had the makings of a block buster and there was no way all these people could be accommodated in the auditorium.
The red eye of the TV camera glowed as Bill Buckley, editor of the National Review and an outspoken Catholic conservative, and William Clancy, religion editor of Newsweek and one of the ranking liberals in the Church, examined, point by incisive point, the issues that were being raised as the Second Vatican Council was due to convene in Rome. Fascinated, the overflow crowd, their knees cramped under desks designed for knees 20, 30 and even 40 years younger, watched the TV screens in the school classrooms arid cafeteria as these two giants philosophized, suggested, argued and reasoned for more than two hours.
The parishioners, their curiosity stimulated, wanted more of the same. The women of the parish sponsored ecumenical evenings, inviting Protestant and Jewish clergymen to share information about their religions with St. Thomas' people. And the people came, packing the auditorium to capacity.
It was a portent of things to come. The decade of the sixties was to see the laity become deeply interested and involved in the fresh insights into Catholicism that emanated from the Council, the first in the Church in nearly 100 years. It ranked with the sixteenth-century Council of Trent as one of the greatest ecumenical councils ever held. Pope John XXIII had stirred the imaginations and won the affections of the world's Catholics and St. Thomas' parishioners were not immune to his charisma.
But before the innovations and liturgical changes came to St. Thomas, the tower bell that Monsignor Joseph A. Smith so loved tolled for him on November 28, 1966. At the age of 77, a priest for 53 years, a monsignor for 12, the founder of St. Thomas died in his sleep following a long illness. The morning of his funeral, the streets around the Church were packed with the hundreds of policemen who came to pay their respects to the man who had been their chaplain for 28 years. Bishop Walter Kellenberg, who had assumed the episcopal leadership of Long Island's Catholics when the Rockville Centre Diocese had been established just nine years before, celebrated the funeral Mass for his friend and fellow priest, the church crowded with scores of dignitaries from Brooklyn and Rockville Centre Dioceses, county, town and state officials, former curates, his family, friends and the parishioners who had been his flock for more than three decades.
To be continued….