ST. CATHARINE'S PARISH - MILESTONES ALONG THE WAY
The completion of the new rectory in May 2008 marked yet another milestone in the history and life of St. Catharine's parish. It was a project long overdue, postponed again and again over the years, simply because other events and developments had greater priority.
St. Catharine's Church was officially dedicated on January 17, 1869, thanks to the efforts of a community of German farmers and businessmen. The primary mover in the establishment of the new parish was George M. Lediger, who donated four acres of his land plus $300. He was joined in the project by his friends and neighbors, chiefly Peter Boslet, Henry Edebohls, and John Raab.
For the first two years of its existence, St. Catharine's was served by clergy from St. Nicholas Church in New York City, until 1870, when Rev. Joseph Bruhy was appointed as the first resident pastor. Fr. Bruhy launched immediately into the development of the young parish, his first two goals being the establishment of a school and a rectory. The Sisters of Holy Rosary Convent, the Dominican Mother House in the same New York City Parish of St. Nicholas, purchased four and one-half acres of land adjacent to St. Catharine's Church on the south for the purpose of building a school. Unfortunately, the new school did not come to fruition, primarily due to a recession that had hit the nation. It would not be until 1957 that St. Catharine's School would finally open, on the same plot of ground bought for that purpose in 1870. However, before he passed away in 1874, Fr. Bruhy was able to achieve his second goal, that of building a parish rectory. It was completed in 1872 at a cost of $3,500. Like the church, it was of frame construction with a brick basement.
In the ensuing years, as the population of the area continued to grow, so did the church community. But the ethnic make-up of the community was changing. Most of the early parishioners, natives of Germany, had passed away. While many of their children still lived here, they had attended local schools and English had become their primary language. Additionally, other nationalities, Irish and Italian, were moving into the area. When Fr. David Murray succeeded Fr. Andrew Sauer in 1917, he was the first pastor at St. Catharine's who did not speak German. Fr. Murray was a vigorous young priest, who immediately set about making modern improvements to the then fifty-year old church. Electricity was installed and the small front porch was converted into a vestibule. He was an efficient financial administrator and was able to double the parish receipts.
Unfortunately, Fr. Murray died suddenly in 1921 before many of his other projects could be started. Thus, it was Rev. Arthur Avard, who became pastor in 1925, who is credited with being the first 'modern' pastor of St. Catharine's. He brought to fruition many of the plans of his close friend, Fr. Murray. The Catholic population in Tappan was also growing and, through the efforts of Fr. Avard, the first Mass was celebrated in the new Chapel of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in 1928. Thus, Fr. Avard now had triple duties, i.e., ministering to the spiritual needs of St. Catharine's, St. Dominic's Home, and Sacred Heart Chapel. For this reason, the Archdiocese provided Fr. Avard with an assistant priest, Fr. John Rigo, the first assistant in St. Catharine's history. Also in 1928, Rockland Psychiatric Center, (known then as Rockland State Hospital) opened. This meant another task for Fr. Avard and to help him manage the needs of the Catholic patients at the hospital, he was given a second assistant, Rev. Charles A. Brady. Since the original rectory was built to accommodate just one priest, some structural changes now had to be made to provide living quarters for three priests.
America's entry into World War II on December 7, 1941 would have a profound, lasting effect on most communities throughout the country. This was the case, even more so, in Blauvelt and Orangeburg. In the autumn of 1942, under the provisions of the War Powers Act, two thousand acres of land in these communities, including any houses thereon, had to be sold to the U.S. Army. The purpose was to allow the construction of Camp Shanks, a massive staging area and point of embarkation for the hundreds of thousands of troops who would eventually be shipped to the battlefields of Europe. During the war, the priests of St. Catharine's served as auxiliary chaplains at the camp. If any single occurrence in local history could be chosen as the dividing point between the 'old' and the 'new' in the life of St. Catharine's Parish, it would probably be the building of Camp Shanks. By September 1946, one year after the end of the war, Camp Shanks had been converted into Shanks Village, providing low-cost housing for the thousands of war veterans attending colleges in New York City under the G.I. Bill of Rights. Now the priests of St. Catharine's added Shanks Village to their ministry. By the time that Shanks Village closed in March 1956, another major event affecting the life of the parish, the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge on December 15, 1955, had occurred. Two real estate development companies purchased eight hundred acres of the former Shanks Village to be used for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes. Now, with the Tappan Zee Bridge providing another and often easier commute to Westchester and New York City, the building boom was on. The complete transformation of the Blauvelt-Orangeburg area, as well as the rest of Rockland County, from rural to suburban had begun.
Rev. John Krohe became pastor of St. Catharine's in June of 1954. From the day of his arrival, Fr. Krohe read the signs around him. He knew the time had come for St. Catharine's to have its own school. He had a persuasive argument ready to present to the Archdiocesan Building Commission. First of all, there was the Catholic population growth in the area. Secondly, he already had the land, the four and one-half acres that had been purchased back in 1870 by the Sisters of the Holy Rosary Convent, the ownership of which had been transferred to the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt in 1890. The Dominican Sisters had, in turn, already sold the land to St. Catharine's. Finally, with St. Dominic's Convent barely 300 feet down the road, Fr. Krohe had his faculty. Thus, the first school year at the new school started in September 1957 with grades one to four. In the following years, a new first grade was added, reaching a full eight grades in September 1961.
Fr. (now Msgr.) Krohe passed away in August 1963 and was succeeded by Msgr. William Brady. Little did he realize at the time that, in less than a year, a major task in the history and development of St. Catharine's Parish would be placed in his hands. In the early morning hours of January 5, 1964 (around 3:00 A.M.), fire damaged the ninety-six year old church beyond feasible repair. Investigation determined that the blaze was almost certainly the work of an arsonist, who had started it by leaving a lighted candle in the sacristy, where it would ignite other material as it burned down. It was quickly decided that it would be fruitless to rebuild the old structure, considering that it had already been inadequate to serve the parish's ever-increasing population, causing the more heavily attended Sunday Masses to be held in the school gymnasium. The remains of the old church were knocked down and removed in July 1964 and construction of the new church began in August 1966. No building fund drive was used; parishioners were simply asked to increase their weekly contributions. Construction took the better part of two years and the new church opened for worship in September 1968, one hundred years after the founding of St. Catharine's by George Lediger and his neighbors.
St. Catharine's, at this point in its history, now had a new school and a new church. Any thoughts of replacing the original rectory, now almost one hundred years old, had to wait. The building would still have to serve into the foreseeable future. With this prospect in mind, Msgr. Hugh Curran, who became pastor in 1979, set about making some significant improvements to the venerable structure. These included a new conference room, a modernized kitchen, a sun room/breakfast room, a two-car garage, and an updated computer system. The 'new' church, although only a dozen years old, also needed some attention. A new roof was put on and central air conditioning was installed.
By the time Msgr. William Belford succeeded Msgr. Curran as pastor in 1991, every parish in the New York Archdiocese was required to provide for the physical needs of parish buildings. Msgr. Belford organized the 1991-1994 Parish Campaign for Capital Improvements, which raised $690,000 over the three-year period. This resulted in major improvements to the church --- a new lighting system, refinished pews, new tiles and carpeting, a raised sanctuary, new altar, pulpit, tabernacle, chairs, and reredos.
Through all these years of building, repairing, and remodeling, the original rectory, helped along periodically by the various repairs and improvements, continued to serve. But, as we entered the 21st Century, the 135 year old building was beyond repair and, by today's standards, was considered a 'fire trap.' Salvation came in the form of the Archdiocesan Bicentennial Parish Campaign in 2006. The St. Catharine's Parish Council unanimously voted to dedicate the parish share (80%) of our pledged amount to the construction of a new rectory. Parishioners were asked to make pledges anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000, payable over a five-year span. The money raised became a restricted or protected fund to be spent exclusively for the construction of a modern parish house. The concept was to have not just a residence for the priests of the parish, but more so, a multi-purpose building to be used for varied parish activities, e.g., Parish Council meetings, Ladies Guild meetings, receptions for special parish groups, etc.
The priests of the parish moved out of the old building in June 2007, after hosting a nostalgic farewell dinner attended by a number of former priests of the parish. Before demolition, the building was then used for several months by local fire departments for training purposes. During the time of the new construction, the parish priests lived in a rented house in Orangeburg. Everything went smoothly with no delays in the project, with the result that, in just eleven months after vacating the old building, the parish priests were able to move into the new structure in May 2008.
The new parish house, costing 1.3 million dollars, has three levels plus an unfinished attic. It is equipped with the most modern safety features, e.g., sprinkler system, smoke and heat detectors, a state-of-the-art fire and burglar alarm system. There is a two-person elevator accessing all floors, making the building handicapped accessible for either visitors or an ever-aging clergy. The main (street-level) floor is the hub of the building, so to speak. Here are the secretary's office, the technology/records room, the pastor's office, a conference room, a modern kitchen and adjoining dining room, a front reception parlor, a living room for the clergy, and an outdoor raised deck. The lower level was designed to be used as a parish community room for organizations and societies that need to cater their events. It features a small kitchen and ample cabinet space. Adjacent to this room is a three-car garage plus additional staff/visitor parking spaces for three cars. The top floor of the house contains private living quarters for four priests, each consisting of a sitting room, bedroom, and bath. The final touch to the new building is the surrounding landscaping. At the start of construction, several parishioners wondered how such a large building would look on the same plot of ground where the smaller original rectory had stood. The finished product certainly has removed any such misgivings.
No discussion of St. Catharine's rectory would be complete without including a mention of the reported ghost or ghosts heard and seen over the years in the old building. There were strange steps on the stairway, creaking floors in the dead of night, doors that seemed to open and close without the touch of a human hand. There were even a few reports of a dim figure appearing in some of the rooms. So far, there have been no such sights or sounds in the new building. Perhaps the spirits left in disappointment when the old structure was torn down. Or, perhaps they actually have moved into the new building, but with all the space available, they now can avoid any contact with the human residents.
For a list of chronological events at St. Catharine's please follow this link.