July 25th, 1915, the Feast of Saint Christopher. In an auditorium over a garage on the corner of Park Avenue and Merrick Road, a Mass was celebrated by Father John McGoldrick inaugurating the Parish of Saint Christopher. For the past ninety years, the parish of Saint Christopher has been the Catholic presence in the village of Baldwin. We were a small parish back in 1915, but as Baldwin grew, so did we. For the beginning decades of our existence we served a the shrine for travelers making their way east to Montauk with Saint Christopher, the patron of motorists standing guard over the western end of Merrick Road. With the Second Vatican Council, we adapted to the renewal set forth by Blessed John XXII and Pope Paul VI and took as our mission “Bearing Christ to One Another”. As we enter the final decade of our first century as a parish, we take a moment to reflect and give thanks for all that has been and pray for God’s blessings for all that is yet to be. The first ninety years have been blessed by so many men and women; lay people, priests, deacons and sisters. As we turn toward our centennial, we are confident that there are more blessings in store.
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Baldwin was a much smaller town than the place we call home today. The town received its name from Thomas Baldwin, a prominent merchant who had built a mansion on Merrick Road. The town had previously been known as Hick’s Neck, then Bethel (named for the Methodist Bethel Chapel) around 1810, then Milburn around 1850 from the railway station here. Due to the presence of Thomas Baldwin’s mansion, the railroad also called the area “The Baldwins”. The town finally became known as Baldwin in the mid 1800’s. Of the 1,200 residents of this little village, only a few were Catholic, These residents made their way to Mass at Our Lady of Loretto in Hempstead, or to St. Agnes in Rockville Centre (1894) or to Our Holy Redeemer in Freeport (1903). By 1912, the Catholic population in Baldwin grew to about seventy families. It was these first seventy families who became our parish’s founding fathers and mothers when they petitioned Bishop Charles McDonnell, the second Bishop of Brooklyn, for a place to go to Mass. In 1912, the Bishop established a mission church in Baldwin attached to Our Holy Redeemer. Land was purchased on the corner of Merrick Road and Gale Avenue for the sum of five thousand dollars for a future church. Bishop McDonnell desired that this new mission, since it was situated at the western end of Merrick Road (thenthe road to Montauk), should be named for Saint Christopher, the patron of travelers. The automobile was rather new at the time, and Bishop McDonnell was quite fond of “motoring” across Long Island, using Merrick Road to take him from Jamaica to Montauk.
The status of Saint Christopher’s as a mission (meaning that we were not attended by a resident pastor, the priests of Freeport would come to Baldwin for Mass) would remain for only three years. On July 7, 1915, Bishop McDonnell appointed Father John McGoldrick as our first pastor and Saint Christopher’s Parish began. Although we owned the land, we still do not have a church. By the end of 1915, Father McGoldrick purchased property (now, Fullerton’s Funeral Home) near the vacant Gale Avenue lot. A house on the property served as the rectory and a carpenter’s shop behind it served as a small chapel. In the midst of this, work had begun in earnest to build the church. congressman (and parishioner) George W. Loft contributed $5,000 to the new building, providing that it be matched by the congregation.
Construction on the first Saint Christopher’s began in June, 1917. The building materials were stones taken from the old Milburn Reservoir in Rockville Centre. That first church, the Shrine Church of Saint Christopher, was gothic in design with a large rose window over the front entrance. Ten dormer windows were built into the steep roof for light. A limestone statue of Saint Christopher and a Cross stood above the window, much like what we have today. From the center of the roof rose the steeple, surmounted by a limestone cross. The first mass in the Shrine Church was celebrated on Easter Sunday, march 31, 1918, and was formally dedicated by Bishop McDonnell on April 28 of that year.
Our designation as a shrine church was an important one. By the 1920’s, each July 25th, cars would line a much narrower Merrick Road for the blessing of automobiles. People would make a pilgrimage here from all over to have their car blessed at Saint Christopher’s Shrine.
In the early years of the parish, there came the need for Catholic education,. Father McGoldrick set out to begin Saint Christopher’s School. He had already purchased the property next to the church. A house that stood there became the rectory when the previous property down Merrick Road was sold. construction of the school began in 1924 and was completed in 1925. The house which stood there was moved further down Pershing Boulevard and would become the first convent for the Sisters of Saint Joseph who would arrive here to staff the new school. Another parcel of land across Merrick Road from the church, (now our south parking lot) was purchased, complete with a house on its east side which became the third rectory. The school was built with the same stones from the Milburn Reservoir as was the church..
Father McGoldrick worked tirelessly from the day he came to Baldwin in 1915, building the Shrine Church and the School, establishing three rectories and a convent. After a well deserved world trip, he celebrated his Silver Jubilee with the parishioners in August of 1926. On Sunday, September 27, 1926, Father John McGoldrick’s earthly journey ended suddenly when he dies at the age of Fifty-two..
By the end of 1926, Father John Mahon arrived as the second pastor of Saint Christopher’s. He was a tireless fund-raiser, seeking to work with the well known actors who made their homes here at the time, to raise funds for the missions and for the young parish. He purchased the land behind the church and built the fourth (and present) rectory in 1934. A year later, he was appointed as pastor of Our Holy Redeemer in Freeport and Father Ulick O’Sullivan Buckley came to Baldwin as the Fourth pastor of Saint Christopher’s. Father Buckley’s time saw the parish census rise to 3,500 people. During the celebration of the parish’s Silver Jubilee (using the 1912 date as the founding year) he had the marble statue of Saint Christopher unveiled which today stands in front of the school. Father Buckley left us for Saint Joseph’s in Garden City in 1946, and Father John Gorman became the fourth pastor. His pastorate would continue until May of 1967.
Like the pastors before him, Father Gorman was a builder. During his twenty years as pastor, Father Gorman began a building phase that gave Saint Christopher’s its present appearance. He started in 1950 with the convent. Mrs. Loft donated land at the corner of Pershing Boulevard for the building. The former convent across the street was demolished and the lot paved over for parking. Next came the first addition to the school.
By the time the Diocese of Rockville Centre was established by Pope Pius XII in 1957. Baldwin had outgrown the little Shrine Church of Saint Christopher. Father Gorman knew that a larger church was needed. The parishioners were truly saddened to see their beloved building go. With the demolition of the old church, our designation as a shrine come to an end. Ground was broken for the new church on December 13, 1959 and construction would last for two and a half years. During these years, Masses were held in the auditorium. The new church was dedicated on Sunday, April 29, 1962 by Bishop Walter Kellenberg, the first Bishop of Rockville Centre..
Father Gorman’s massive building efforts did not yet come to an end. By the mid 1960’s, the parish population had grown to over 10,000 people and had 2,000 students in Religious Education. While the school was expanded in 1956, more room was needed. Father Gorman had broken ground for the third addition to the school as his last major project (completed in 1968, the third wing of the school added eight new classrooms, a library and a cafeteria). At the age of seventy-four, Father Gorman retired in January of 1967 and moved to Westchester. In his later years, he lived at the Maryknoll Infirmary, where he passed away on May 28, 1982.
From the 1960’s to the present day, our parish met the welcomed challenges presented by the Second Vatican Council. Msgr. Joseph Lawlor became the fifth Pastor of Saint Christopher’s in 1967 and remained until 1986. Msgr. Lawlor would extend our property by purchasing several homes behind the school building, thus forming our North parking lot and school playground. Msgr. Lawlor also completed the second extension of the school (begun by Father Gorman) and modernized our older buildings. His time as Pastor saw the birth of many new ministries and the expansion and development of our catechetical ministry. Ministries like the Saint Vincent de Paul Society grew to serve the needs of the poor among us. Religious Education began to evolve to the system we know today. Liturgical ministers began to proclaim the Sacred Scripture and assist with distribution of Holy Communion. A choir began singing (and hasn’t stopped yet!) Over those early years following the Council, the understanding of church as the People of God on a pilgrimage of faith together grew as more ministries developed. A vast amount of activity went on during Msgr. Lawlor’s nineteen years as pastor. He retired in June 1986 with the tile of Pastor Emeritus. Due to declining health over the years, his visits here became less frequent, but the people of Saint Christopher’s were in his prayers each day. Following Msgr’s retirement party on June 15, 1986, the lower level of the original school building was named “Lawlor Hall”.
Father Dennis Whelan was appointed sixth pastor in 1986. During his three years here much work was done. The Religious Education Program grew. In the School, the first Kindergarten class came through the doors in 1988.
In 1989, Msgr. John Bennett became the seventh pastor. Msgr. Bennett continued the work put in place before him, working to enhance the school and religious education programs and further the growth and development of new ministries. In 1998, our church saw a much needed addition. An elevator was constructed on the northwest corner of the church, thus eliminating the stair problem for so many parishioners. And in the year 2000, we said good-bye to the ghastly summer heat of the church when the new air-conditioning system was turned on for the first time. But as Msgr. Bennett pointed out that first day we had it, “Now you have to listen to us preach in the summer.”
Our ninetieth year has been one of transition. At the end of the 2004 school year, Sr. Dolores McLaughlin, CSJ retired as school principal after serving in the position since 1980 (and as a faculty member since 1969), and began to serve as Pastoral Associate in pre-Baptism ministry and visits to Mercy Hospital. Miss Joan Hanlon, who had served as Assistant Principal then became the first lay principal of Saint Christopher’s School.
On June 26, 2005, we said farewell to Msgr. Bennett when he was appointed pastor at Saint Patrick’s Parish in Huntington. He did not say “good bye”, only, “thank you!” Fr. Steven Camp became the eight Pastor of our Parish.
In the early hours of New Year’s Day of this year, our Pastor Emeritus, Msgr. Joseph Lawlor quietly returned to the arms of his loving Savior in the seventieth year of his priesthood while in the care of the Missionary Sisters of Saint Benedict in Greenlawn. He was brought “home” to Saint Christopher’s, where he was waked in the hall named for him. Father Frank Eisele, who served as his associate pastor, preached at his Mass of Transferal. Msgr. Bennett, who always kept him abreast of everything going on with Saint Christopher’s, preached at his funeral Mass which was celebrated by Bishop William Murphy.
The first ninety years have been filled with growth and development for both Baldwin and Saint Christopher’s, but above all, they’ve been filled with grace. From seventy families in 1915 to three thousand families in 2005, the people of Saint Christopher’s have met the challenges presented by the changing times that move us forward. There is a great deal more that could be written if space would permit, but with each of the pastors mentioned, there were people who worshipped here, who were baptized here, who learned to read and write here, who were married here, and were buried from here. People who made this parish live and breath as the visible presence of Christ in Baldwin..
Back in 1990, we celebrated our Diamond Jubilee with the motto, “Bearing Christ to One Another”. Those words, hung from the choir loft, characterize who we are as a parish, each individual Christian hearing and responding to the call of Christ. We celebrate this mystery at every mass as Jesus comes to us in His Word and His Eucharist, a mystery received so we can have the grace to be “Christophers”. And in 2015 we celebrated our 100th Anniversary!
Each year as we enjoy our parish feast, take a moment to look around you. Remember those first seventy families and Father McGoldrick. Remember the people who traveled here to have their cars blessed. Remember the many people, parishioners, sisters, priests and deacons who lived their faith on these grounds for these first ninety years. We are no longer the wayside shrine that we were at our foundation, but our mission remains, to bear Christ to one another.
But some things don’t change. People will still stop here to have their cars blessed!
Father Brian McQuade