The Age of Planting, 1879-1904
The Parish of Saint Monica was founded in June 1879 when Father John Treanor, the Pastor of St. Lawrence O’Toole (now the St. Ignatius Loyola Church) proposed to Cardinal John McCloskey, the Archbishop of New York, to create a new parish with jurisdictions covering the east side of Second Avenue between 72nd Street and 96th Street. The birth of St. Monica’s Parish was a response to the expanding Catholic Church and became the fourth parish then to serve the Catholics of New York’s Upper East Side. The “roots” of the Parish were planted with these highlights:
1880 - Father Dougherty took over a feed store at 404 East 78th Street, where he conducted weekly mass. He baptized his first child in the Parish, William J. McGarry.
1881 - Father Dougherty bought the property at 405 – 413 East 79th Street, on which the present Church and rectory were built. The foundation stone reads: “Construction began 1881.” The Church tower was completed in 1883.
1883 - Sisters of Charity established a school with 350 students.
1886 - The Pastor and his three curators moved into the rectory upon completion at a cost of $14,000.
1888 - Opening of the New School Hall and school building at 416 East 80th Street.
All these building programs and development were accomplished during America’s tough times with the financial panic of 1873, boom/bust economic cycles, labor unrests, influx of immigrants from Ireland, Germany and the United Kingdom to escape their homeland’s labor unrest and failure of the potato crop. However, the invention of the gasoline carriage and the electric railway in 1879 spurred growth and development in New York City and St. Monica’s Yorkville Community.
Age of Watering and Harvest, 1904-1929
St. Monica’s Church expanded in tandem with the country’s expansion during the next 25 years from 1904 – 1929. Under the leadership of its third and fourth pastors, Rev. James D. Lennon and Rt. Rev. Arthur J. Kenny, the parish enjoyed and increase in the number of parishioners, better financial situations, and had highly organized religious and intellectual-life programs, such as St. Monica’s Lyceum (dissolved in 1935), St. Vincent de Paul, various sodalities, and the Holy Name Society, which assumed a major role in parish affairs. Highlights worth noting:
1905 - The Church cornerstone was laid by Archbishop Farley.
1906 - On Thanksgiving Day, the new St. Monica’s Church was inaugurated at a cost of $160,000.
1913-43 - Monsignor Arthur Kenny became the fourth Pastor and served for 30 years.
This period was known as the Church’s “Golden Years” against the country’s historical backdrops of World War I, Prohibition and Roaring Twenties.
Age of Dormancy and Decline, 1929-1954
Historian Monsignor George A. Kelly wrote about the serious problems facing St. Monica’s Church. During this period, the number of parishioners attending Sunday mass declined from 5,500 on average in the 1920s to 3,900 in 1942; the Church had not been painted for 25 years, the convent was dilapidated, and the Church was again in debt. However, the Church’s parish activities were thriving and vital to the community. St. Vincent de Paul Society, on its own, served the poor and needy. The people were devoted to such religious programs as vespers, novenas and rosary sessions. This period coincided with one of America’s most turbulent and dark periods in its history with the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II. No one could escape the impact of these events with bankruptcies, long lines of unemployment, deteriorating housing conditions, and the military service moving many parishioners to various parts of the country. Key highlights of the period:
1944 - Sisters of Charity were replaced by Sisters of St. Francis in the School of St. Monica.
1953 - The most dramatic event in the Church history was the accidental fire in the Church on August 18, 1953.
1954 - The Church reopened in May with a renovation cost of $350,000 and, like churches elsewhere, St. Monica’s provided a place of comfort and strength.
The Age of Replanting, 1954-1979
With the reopening of the Church in 1954, the various societies were revitalized with confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Cana Conferences, Alcoholics Anonymous, and social events such as the Irish Nights and bingo games became popular. Other highlights during this period were:
1972 - Introduction of the first Parish Bazaar.
1973 - Parish project raised funds of $40,000 to paint the Church and refurbish the rectory.
1974 - Closing down of the school.
The tsunami of change occurred in the historical Second Vatican Council, led by Pope John XXIII in 1962, to its closing in December 1965 by Pope Paul VI. The council had a far-reaching impact, like seeds blown in the wind, with a reform of orders and seminaries, upgrading of the laity, and changes in liturgical rites, theological reflections, and declarations. The sixties was the period of the Vietnam War, civil rights, the feminist movement, and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The depressed economy and inflationary times first took their toll in the decade of the 1970s. As St. Monica’s celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 1979, the parish members had declined, St. Monica’s School had closed, the resident clergy had dwindled, and the organ fell into disrepair, yet the quality of the parishioners was as strong and faithful as ever.
The Age of Harvesting, 1979-2003
The period of the 1980s through 2000 witnessed the city’s and the country’s up cycle in its economic and political landscape, rising income, population changes with diverse nationalities and more supermarkets, and new high-rise apartments. Some “modernization” touches, such as installation of new lighting, paintings and refurbished
pews were completed. The average attendance at the weekly and Sunday masses had stabilized. Some highlights of this period:
1992 - Rev. Monsignor Thomas A. Modugno was installed as Pastor of St. Monica’s and Co-Vicar of East Manhattan.
1995 - The organ was restored through a successful fund-raising drive after a major part of the organ had been silent since 1967.
Today and the Next 25 years: A Renaissance of Faith
St. Monica’s celebrated its 125th Anniversary on September 26, 2004, there was and still is excitement, joy, renewal and commitment in the Parish community. Led by Rev. Monsignor Modugno’s vision and plans, a major capital fund-raising effort was launched with its goal of $550,000. The parishioners’ response and resounding support exceeded the goal and raised $600,000! At last, after 125 years, the Church now has new, secure and aesthetically pleasing front doors.
Other renovations included reliquary for sacred oils, a new and refurbished altar, and soon restoring and suspending the brass over the baptismal font. With this support, there is hope and faith for a new sense of community. The community which gathers here is as diverse as America and New York City.
Our thoughts about the future go forward creating it; our minds and our hearts are like filaments that connect today to tomorrow. One philosopher once said, “Wisdom proclaims that with every blade of grass, an angel whispers, “Grow! Grow!” There is a lot to do in the orchard of St. Monica’s Church. So come in, grow some peace with us, grow some joy, and grow with love.