St. Brigid’s Church celebrates its centennial
In the middle of a busy Westbury street, set back by a green lawn, sits a stone church with a rising gray steeple that has become a landmark in the community, both in a physical and spiritual sense. Flanked by the malls and restaurants of Old Country Road and the bustling downtown of Post Avenue, St. Brigid’s Church sits juxtaposed, a serene, welcoming haven amidst the busyness that surrounds it. While the community around it has changed vastly over the years, going from rural farmland to a developed suburbia, St. Brigid’s has remained true to its original mission: a place of worship where people can feel loved and accepted.
This year, St. Brigid’s Church celebrates its 100-year anniversary. More than 2,000 people attend services at St. Brigid’s Church every week (there are 8,200 families), and many more also utilize their numerous social services. The church’s diverse population reflects the wide mix of ethnicities in Westbury, and there are services offered in English, Spanish, Italian and Creole.
“St. Brigid’s is one of Westbury’s most important institutions,” said village Mayor Peter Cavallaro. “St. Brigid’s impact over these 100 years expands far beyond the local Catholic population, as the parish’s mission is one of inclusion and assistance to those in need.” The church will be marking the milestone anniversary of its building with a restoration project, as well as looking at new ways that they can continue to serve the local community.
A Milestone Anniversary
The parish was established by Irish immigrants more than 150 years ago. The first church building they built has since been knocked down and the second building was eventually moved across the street and used as a school, before being converted into a meeting hall, now known as St. Anthony’s Hall. The structure currently known as St. Brigid’s Church was built in 1916, originally designed as a simple and bare building before being renovated in the ’50s to reflect a more ornate style.
Over the last hundred years, thousands upon thousands of people have walked through the church doors; seeking solace after a funeral, rejoicing at a wedding, celebrating a baptism, looking for social services or finding guidance during mass.
“We think of it as a building that once welcomed veterans back from WWI. It’s a place that during Superstorm Sandy, became a refuge for people,” said Father Tony Stanganelli, pastor at St. Brigid’s Church. “It has a meaning beyond just a place of worship. It’s become a place where people feel safe and the comfort and love of God in very practical ways in terms of their needs being met.
A Community Beacon
The church has set itself apart in its offering of social services to help all members of the community, whether or not they’re members.
Stanganelli said that since the 1970s, the parish has taken a very prominent mission in aiding the poor and immigrant population of Westbury. They have a food pantry, immigrant services and during holidays, put together food baskets to distribute to the needy.
Building on its foundation of being founded by immigrants, the church has continued to embrace people from all cultures. The parish’s founders were Irish, thus the name St. Brigid, an Irish saint. When a wave of Italian and Spanish immigrants came over, their saints were incorporated in the church as well. Masses given in English, Spanish, Italian and Creole make people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds feel at home.
Al Peck has attended St. Brigid’s Church for 50 years and said that watching the parish grow in diversity has been a highlight.
“It’s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-thinking, multi-everything,” Peck said. “When you sit in the pews, you’re not just surrounded by one way of thinking. It’s very challenging to you as a person to be able to incorporate all the other ways of worshiping God.”
Father Ralph Sommer served as pastor of St. Brigid’s from 2001-13. He said the parish’s diversity is a hallmark.
“Realizing that people of all cultures and backgrounds are all welcome is a real shining point,” Sommer said. “People with distinct backgrounds can all gather as one to worship God and let their backgrounds flavor their worship, as opposed to dividing the worshipers. St. Brigid’s has grown over the years to be a community where people of all backgrounds can gather.”
Looking To The Future
With the building celebrating its 100-year anniversary, the church is launching a restoration project to help bring it up to date, as well as to help them continue their outreach services. Stanganelli said that plans are still in the works, but they are looking at a $1.5 million project to restore parts of the building, as well as to relocate offices and outreach centers.
“We’re going to be asking people go look at their commitments toward various projects we have in mind,” Stanganelli said. “The building is 100 years old so it does need a little TLC.”
The building has seen several restoration projects over the last centennial. One of the more recent major transformations was in the 1950s, when the simple church was renovated to become more ornate with additional statues, as many other churches were doing during that time period. In the mid-1980s, the church decided to revert back to its original simplicity, and took out some of the elaborate elements that were added in the ’50s.
With this upcoming renovation, Stanganelli said they are hoping to bring back some of the architect’s original designs and intentions for the building.
“We want to bring back some of the elements and the architectural integrity of the building to bring it to what it was created to be,” Stanganelli said.
The parish is looking to do repair and renovation work to window panes, pews, doors, bathrooms and the roof. They are also hoping to move some of the offices from the parish center to the St. Anthony’s Hall, so they can relocate the food pantry to the parish center. That will allow all the parish’s outreach services will be in one place.
“So if someone comes to the food pantry and we find out they need help with immigration status or social services, all of that can happen under one roof,” Stanganelli said.
While portions of the church will get an upgrade, Stanganelli said the parish’s mission and the elements of the building people love, will stay the same.
“We asked people what they love most about the church…because of its smallness it has a sense of intimacy and warmth, and that’s never going to change, that feeling of welcoming. All of that is going to be maintained,” Stanganelli said. “Hopefully just highlight it a little bit more so things that make [the building] so beautiful stand out more.”