The late renowned author of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, Fulton Oursler, wrote in 1952 that he always looked forward to passing through White Plains on the train for the pleasure of seeing the inspiring gold-crowned campanile of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, the bell tower of the Stigmatine Fathers parish. It is extremely unlikely that he was aware that the nucleus of this parish came into being in 1889 when Father Paolino Sapienza gathered a small group of new, Italian speaking Americans about him for Mass. They met first, under the auspices of the Sisters of the Divine Compassion, and later in the clubrooms of the Society of the Stella D’Italia and in Saint John’s Hall.
In 1902, the trustees of this pioneering group, Natale Bambace and Anthony Richards, bought a house and grounds at number 5 Smith Street, near the Harlem railroad station, the first property the church was to own. They built a small wooden chapel next to it and for 13 years services were conducted there.
We have little information about the Smith Street period of the parish other than that Father Joseph Marinaro (1902-1915) was the first Pastor. This is due in great part to the fact that the otherwise detailed annals of Westchester County studiously avoid mention not only of Italian American activities but also those of other ethnic groups. It was a period of such harsh discrimination as to cause many new Americans, in the struggle for survival in their new communities, to abandon the ways of the Old Country as well as their faith.
All the more credit is due, therefore, to the indefatigable efforts of Father Marinaro and his faithful little parish. Witness to his success is the number of baptisms (1550) and marriages (289) performed between 1902 and 1915. When he was transferred in 1915, Father Angelus M. Jacobucci (1915-1922) succeeded him. In 1916, shortly after his arrival, the Westchester Highway Commission announced that all buildings in the area were to be razed to make way for the Bronx River Parkway. Father Jacobucci was able to secure a building at 27 Brookfield Street, then the heart of the business section, covered over today by the new County Court House complex. Mass was celebrated in the basement of a four story building but, soon it became imperative to find larger quarters.
The Stigmatine Fathers, or the Congregation of the Stigmatine Fathers and Brothers of the Sacred Stigmata of Our Lord Jesus Christ, was founded by Saint Gaspar Bertoni (1777-1853), a priest of the Diocese of Verona in Northern Italy. In Italy, the Stigmatines are known mainly as educators but they are also engaged in other priestly work. In 1910 missionaries went to Brazil, and in 1915 to China, until that country expelled all missionaries. In 1905, the first Stigmatines arrived in the United States; in 1920 they concentrated their forces and labor in the Massachusetts and New York areas, establishing a seminary for American candidates which was inaugurated in 1924 in Waltham, Massachusetts, in the Archdiocese of Boston. Their initial work in the United States was the care of
Italian immigrants, but their ministry is no longer restricted to this work. It now embraces many other fields of the apostolate. On June 10, 1922, the spiritual care of the Italian colony was given over to the Stigmatine Fathers Congregation.
The first Stigmatine Pastor in White Plains was Father Leo Sella, C.S.S. (1922-1932). Early in his tenure he obtained approval from Patrick Cardinal Hayes for the Italians to build their own church. He was able to obtain the Elks Club on South Lexington Avenue, which at one time had been the City Hospital. This three-story building was used for the rectory. Behind this was another building with two big halls. These were later the rectory and the classroom building. The property was purchased on May 1, 1924 and the Brookfield Street building was sold. On July 1, 1924, the first Mass was celebrated on the new premises.
To serve the needs of Italians in the Silver Lake district, a hall, later to be called St. Anthony’s, was bought in 1922 and administered by the Stigmatines until 1952, when it was given over to the administration of the Archdiocese of New York clergy.
Because of the rapid growth in the number of Italian speaking people in White Plains, the construction of a second mission church, Our Lady of the Assumption on Ferris Avenue, was begun in 1926 and on April 10, 1927, the first Rector of that church, Father Joseph Rosa celebrated the first Mass.
At this time, designs for a new Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church were drawn up with the approval of Cardinal Hayes. The foundation of the church was laid and a campaign initiated, partly in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the parish and, at the same time, to raise funds. More than $70,000 was pledged but, as all pledges were not redeemed, the Church found itself with a debt of $270,000. It took many years to eliminate it and each succeeding Pastor, by his individual arduous efforts, contributed to its lessening.
The facade of the Church is a reproduction of the Church of Santa Maria Della Pietà in Venice, Italy and the interior modeled after Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Italy. The campanile, 200-feet high with a gold-leaf dome is designed after the tower of the Church of San Lorenzo, the Cathedral of Lugano, Switzerland.
When Father Leo Sella left White Plains, he was succeeded by Father Michael Madussi (1932-1933) and Father Raymond Dalla Porta (1933-1934), both of whom served as Pastor for one year.
In 1934, Father Joseph Rosa (1934-1952) came to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, doubtless unaware that he was to spend 18 years with his new flock, although many were known to him through his term of office as Rector of Our Lady of the Assumption Mission Church. Needless to say, from the beginning he was hampered by the debt and many projects had to be held in abeyance while he coped with the amortization and paid interest.
These financial burdens notwithstanding, he was an extraordinary spiritual leader and his personal impact was felt not only by parishioners but by the community at large. One might almost say he was “ecumenical” before it became official. Many instances of his long-reaching kindness and generosity are recalled to this day by friends of every faith. After his departure from White Plains in 1952, he returned to Massachusetts to become Rector of St. Ann’s Church in West Springfield. At Our Lady of the Assumption, Father Rosa had supervised the actual construction of the church. On his appointment to Mount Carmel, Father Gioacchino Bortignon and Father Dante Turri continued the administration of the Assumption Mission for three years.
After his death in 1964, “The Friends of Father Rosa” presented the Stigmatine Provincial in his memory with a handsome burse for education of students for the priesthood in the Stigmatine Congregation.
Father Louis Zuliani (1937-1945) followed Father Rosa as Rector of Assumption Church. He is remembered especially for his apostolate among the youth of the parish, opening the church hall every Saturday for movies for the children. Weekly dances were held for the teenagers.
At Saint Anthony’s Mission Church in Silver Lake, another Stigmatine Father became a much loved figure. Father Richard Zambiasi (1934-1952), brought to both Saint Anthony’s and to Our Lady of Mount Carmel not only his spiritual dedication but also his brilliance as a musician/composer. A disciple of the great Vatican organist Lorenzo Perosi, he was at his happiest when playing the fine new pipe organ at Mount Carmel, and directing his two choirs.
When Father William Ludessi (1952-1961) assumed Father Rosa’s mantle, he must have realized it would have been a heavy burden to bear. However, he soon won many friends and during his nine year tenure, he succeeded in finally liquidating, the church debt. He managed also to make some repairs and refurbishing. A two story building on South Lexington Avenue and four homes on Orawaupum Street were purchased and demolished to make way for a parking area.
In 1945, after Father Zuliani’s return to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Father Paul Zanini (1945-1949) was appointed Rector of Our Lady of the Assumption. This dynamic priest was able to pay off all debts during his four year tenure. He founded the Sodality of Our Blessed Lady, the Holy Name Society and played a great part in organizing events for financial assistance to the church.
While Father Zanini was Rector, the inspirational statue of the Sacred Heart, overlooking the whole area from Westchester County Center almost to Hartsdale, was blessed and dedicated in Thanksgiving for the safe return of the parish’s men in the armed forces in World War II.
In 1949, Father Adolph Ferrari (1949-1957) was Rector of Assumption Mission Church. He carried on all the parochial activities initiated by his predecessors and generously expended his labor, even physically, for “the little church on the hill”. He planned an addition to the church but, before he could execute his plans he was transferred in 1957.
Father Julius Valentinelli (1957-1972) succeeded Father Ferrari as Rector of the Assumption and soon became known as the “Second Founder of Assumption Church”. This title was rightfully earned for the vast improvements made during his term as Rector. He added a sacristy and office to the church in 1960 and erected a beautiful statue of Our Lady of the Assumption in the church yard in 1962. The church roof was replaced and the entire structure repainted in 1969. At 75 years of age “Father Julius” as he is affectionately called, retired to the Espousal Center, staffed by Stigmatine Fathers and Brothers in Waltham, Massachusetts. His popularity was demonstrated in the large number of parishioners from the parish, and outside of the parish and from various states and the number of civic officials who attended his Golden Jubilee Mass and dinner given in his honor shortly before his retirement.
The sixth Rector of the Assumption, Father Charles Grady, was appointed to this post in June, 1972. He continued some of Father Julius’ projects. In 1973, he had the exterior of the parish house on Ferris Avenue completely renovated. The interior of the church was painted in 1974. The CCD center’s interior also was completely removed and repaired.
In 1961 Father Leonard Della Badia (1961-1964) a native of nearby Eastview, was appointed Pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He brought great zeal and kindness to his pastorate. He continued his ministry as a Pastor in Canada and upon retirement returned home to us at Mount Carmel.
Father Carmen T. Russo (1964-1967) succeeded Father Della Badia and one of his first steps was to petition Cardinal Spellman for permission to build a new rectory. Permission was granted in 1964 and later that year construction began. The new building was completed in July of 1966 and dedicated on September 18, 1966. Once again the church had a debt to deal with and it was towards the liquidation of this debt that the succeeding pastors were obliged to focus their efforts.
In 1967, Father Dino Giampaolo (1967-1970) came to White Plains as Pastor of Mount Carmel. Father Giampaolo undertook renovations in thesanctuary of the church in accordance with the prescriptions of the Revised Liturgy. During the latter part of his term he was plagued with ill health which necessitated his transfer to allow some time for recuperation. Unfortunately, his condition worsened and he was called to his eternal reward in 1976. Through the generous gifts of his friends and parishioners, a wood carved statue of the Stigmatine’s Founder, Saint Gaspar Bertoni was purchased in Father Giampaolo’s memory. It is located at the rear of the church.
The next Pastor, Father Samuel J. Fayad (1970-1982), presented his plans to the parishioners for the revival of the parish, in which he pleaded for their support in the complete “renaissance” of the church interior and exterior. Phone-a-thons and voluntary contributions opened the way for the renewal, not only of the church itself but, also to the church hall and the CCD classrooms. As funds came in additional work was done to the church’s interior design and columns. New pews were purchased, their style in keeping with the sanctuary furnishings. As Father Fayad hoped all of this was in readiness for the Diamond Jubilee Mass at which His Eminence Terrence Cardinal Cooke said that he felt he was transported to one of the great basilicas of Rome. It was also during this period, at the request of parishioners, the Festa and Procession on the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel were re-instituted.
After Father Samuel Fayad, the church was under the leadership of Father Gerald Goggin (1982-1985), Father Rinaldo Ribezzi (1985-1989), and a second tenure of Father Samuel Fayad (1989-1994). Under Father Fayad’s second term as Pastor, the Parish Campaign was begun and the interior of the church was completely renovated. Also during this period, Mount Carmel’s Mission Church, Our Lady of the Assumption, was closed due to a lack of priests to staff it and financial hardship. The Church was later sold to an Indian Orthodox
congregation of an eastern rite of Christianity.
Our present Pastor, Father Albert Azrak (1994-present) is credited with a host of new projects and renovations which were much needed and appreciated by the parishioners. Major improvements included the construction of the elevator which gave greater access to the elderly and disabled parishioners, the construction of the Saint Francis Garden, a new roof with restoration of the terra cotta tiles, the repaving of the parking lot, relandscaping of the grounds and the restoration and gold leafing of the bell tower’s cupola. Also the Carmela bell was re-mounted so it could ring for future generations. Other projects included the public address system, air conditioning, refinishing of the pews and restoration of the Austin pipe organ. In commemoration of the Centennial Anniversary, a new electronic Carillon bell system was installed for Christmas 2002 and the glorious music played again. Parish projects for the future include an addition of the second floor to the classroom building to accommodate the family growth of our parish, the opening of a historical museum, creating a time capsule to be opened for the bicentennial celebration and a website for the parish community.
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January 02 2009 04:53 pm