Over 100 Years Of Faith

Across from the World War I memorial in the garden of St. Fidelis Roman Catholic Church in College Point is a monument to parishioners who lost their lives on 9/11.
In a New York far different from that of 1856 when St. Fidelis was founded, Northrop Grumman is installing a warning system in the church’s belfry - the highest point in the neighborhood - that will transmit to other locales in the event of a terrorist attack.
Despite the changed world it now finds itself in, St. Fidelis still bears the same red brick exterior and priceless stained glass windows it does in a photo taken during its 1895 dedication, in which a horse-drawn carriage and surrounding procession are sepia-toned and yellowing like old newsprint. The church has welcomed generations of families into the world and given just as many their proper farewell.
For its role as a cornerstone in the community over the past century and a half, St. Fidelis, along with the First Reformed Church of College Point, St. John’s Lutheran, and St. Paul’s Episcopal, the three other centenarian churches in the area, is being honored by the College Point Board of Trade at its annual dinner dance on Wednesday, October 24 at The Inn at New Hyde Park.
In an early indication of the important roles the churches would play over the last century, College Point was named after St. Paul’s College whose parish is the oldest in the community. According to Father Paul Hamilton, St. Paul’s history can be traced back to a seminary founded in 1836 on the site of what is now known as Chisholm’s Park.
Father Hamilton, who, like his counterparts, is “very pleased and humbled by the honor” the Board of Trade has bestowed upon the churches of College Point, explained that St. Paul’s has roots even farther back in the Episcopal Church of Flushing.
All four churches are just blocks away from one another. Wandering the hilly, tree-lined streets that connect them, you can occasionally look past the honking SUVs and neon business signs, catch a glimpse of the boats gliding across the surface of Flushing Bay, and imagine what College Point was like when its churches were first founded, back when the neighborhood was mostly German-American.
“It’s a challenge to incorporate years of history and tradition into ministry,” said Reverend Linda Burlew, sitting in a pew at the First Reformed Church of College Point where, she admits, a century ago a female would not have been in her position. Describing a “push and pull” between welcoming new ideas and adhering to custom, Reverend Burlew praised the community for maintaining its small-town charm in spite of challenges that weren’t present in the 19th century.
There is a hint of nostalgia in Mike D’Errico’s voice as he recalls the College Point of his youth. A seventy-two-year-old lifelong member of St. Fidelis, D’Errico remembers when so many people came to church on a Sunday morning that the chapel and the religious school were both used for services. “Coming up here was like going to Times Square. And the hardest part was you knew everybody,” said D’Errico, laughing.
Father Arthur Minichello is more of a neophyte at St. Fidelis, having come nine years ago from St. Dominic’s in Bensonhurst, which is the newest parish in the diocese. “You try to understand the history of the parish and appreciate it as much as the people here do because they’ve lived here all their lives,” he said, noting that he knew little of College Point before coming to St. Fidelis.
Down the street, St. John’s Lutheran, built on land purchased for a hundred dollars 150 years ago, has seen an evolution among its parishioners. “We’re in the process right now of really talking long and hard about whether we need to offer the ministry of the church in a different language, whether we need to start, let’s say, a Chinese congregation,” said Pastor Arthur Gillespie, referring to the recent influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants that followed the spike in Irish and Germans when College Point was founded.
Pastor Gillespie thinks he and his church will have to become more “home-grown,” connecting with individual members of the new cultures and ethnicities represented in the community and raising them up into the church’s leadership.
Even the way pastors interact with parishioners has changed, said Pastor Gillespie, who showed off an archive of old church documents and photographs. “The operative word was fear. When I grew up, my pastor, I was scared to death of the man. People now are looking for pastors that are like them.”
Unfortunately, change also means that many of the church schools have had to close or are in the process of closing as enrollment has dwindled. “It can no longer be assumed that a family that moves into the neighborhood either has a church or knows a church or knows what type of church they’re looking for,” said Reverend Burlew.
“I think for all the churches and especially for us it’s trying to say what type of church we are and we let people know that. And be welcoming when they come,” she exclaimed, citing the heightened importance of community outreach.
“I would say that the church would be here in another 100 years. [The church] has gone through a lot and we have our ups and downs but in the end there are people to worship, people to work, and work that needs to be done. And communities will always want to gather,” said the Reverend.

More from Around New York