East End church installed as basilica

GREGORY A. SHEMITZ | TLIC

Southampton — There are always celebrity sightings in the Hamptons on Memorial Day weekend, but one of the most photographed stars this weekend was a year-round “resident.” The stately and historic Basilica of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary here “sparkled” according to Bishop William Murphy, who inaugurated the church to the honorific title of minor basilica at a Mass packed with proud parishioners on Sunday.

At the beginning of Mass, Bishop Murphy presented a letter to pastor Msgr. Jeffrey Madley from the Vatican, officially bestowing on the East End church the title of minor basilica. Derived from “basil” the Greek work for king, “basilica” literally means a palace, and is a title of honor given by the pope to an important church. There are four “major” basilicas, all in Rome. There are more than 1,500 “minor” basilicas around the world, including 72 in the United States.

Bishop Murphy said he asked that Pope Benedict grant this honor to Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary because of its beauty and significance as a center of worship for more than 100 years. Established for immigrant domestic workers who refused to come east to work for wealthy Protestant estate owners at the turn of the 20th century unless they had a place to worship, the parish has continued to grow with the community.

With the diocesan cathedral located in Rockville Centre, “some in Suffolk and especially the East End have felt distant from the diocese,” the bishop said in December, when he announced the pope’s decision to name Sacred Hearts a basilica. “I thought it would be a mark of recognition to the Catholics of the East End to have a parish with a distinguished history and a church building of remarkable beauty, well supported by a congregation of faith, receive this title.”

During the inauguration, Bishop Murphy blessed the traditional symbolic items granted use in a basilica – the “ombrellina,” an umbrella made in the papal colors of red and gold, and the “tintinnabulum” a miniature bell on a pole.

“I am so grateful to God that the Holy Father has given us this honor,” said Bishop Murphy. “This day, this church is numbered with all the great basilicas and will be forever more.”

Before Mass started, parishioners were quick to tell visitors about the church’s history and unique features, including the 400-year-old wooden ambo (pulpit) from Germany, the shamrocks carved into the arches, and how the white marble stones on the building were rejected by the builders of the New York City Public Library on Fifth Avenue and were scooped up for use here.

Being named a basilica “is such a blessing, not just for us in our parish, but for all the churches on the East End,” said Peg Jordan, who has been an active parishioner at Sacred Hearts for over 40 years. She noted that the parish’s beauty goes beyond the building. “This is a wonderful parish, very friendly and very prayerful,” she said. “It was built for the Irish servants. Now we have the Hispanic community that considers this their ‘cathedral’ and a large Filipino population in the area.”

The front pews of the church were reserved for members of the Gilmartin and Lynch families, who have deep roots in the parish. “I’m over the top about this,” said Mary (Gilmartin) Steinbrecher. “Every important event has been in this church. This is one of my most exciting experiences here, except for my wedding.” She was seated in the front row with her mother, Mary Gilmartin, who at 103 has seen most of the parish history and was proud to present the offertory gifts to Bishop Murphy during the basilica dedication. Also part of the offertory was 97-year-old Ruth Lynch, who was baptized in Sacred Hearts in August, 1914. Fittingly, another member of the family, baby Colleen Lynch, was set to be baptized in the afternoon, one of the first to be baptized in the basilica.

Msgr. Madley, who is completing 12 years as pastor and will be transferred to St. Mark’s in Shoreham at the end of June, thanked all those who came out on a hot Memorial Day weekend to be part of the celebration and especially thanked Bishop Murphy for suggesting this honor.
Bishop Murphy replied he was “just the instrument. We are here because of you, this church of immigrants, this people of faith.” He thanked Msgr. Madley and also noted the efforts of his predecessor, Msgr. Edmond Trench, who died in March. The congregation welcomed Father Michael Vetrano, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, West Islip, who will take over as pastor of the basilica parish in June.

In his homily Bishop Murphy noted that the “beautiful stones that make up this church are meant to house living stones ... those who come here will find in you the witness of Jesus Christ. This basilica has an important role to play in the Church to come. It is up to you and me to make this basilica alive with prayer and joy.”

Basilica designation brings ‘status symbols’

Pope Benedict XVI announced the designation of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary as a minor basilica in December 2011. The designation, in addition to expressing in a significant way the union of the local Church with the Chair of St. Peter, brings with it a number of privileges.

 A basilica church is entitled to display the Coat of Arms of Vatican City on its façade and the crossed keys of St. Peter on all its furnishings and liturgical appointments.

It also has an ombrellina — or umbrella — symbolizing “the overshadowing presence of God and protection found in the Church.” The ombrellina at Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary was made in Italy and bears the seal of the diocese of Rockville Centre as well as the papal seal emblazoned on the striped red and gold papal colors. Tradition holds that if the pope were to come to visit his basilica, the ombrellina would be used to shield him from sun or rain.

The “tintinnabulum” is a bell mounted on a post. The ornate scrollwork surrounding the bell of the Basilica of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary includes the parish name and is topped by the Vatican City coat of arms, consisting of the crossed keys of St. Peter and a papal crown. Historically, the miniature bell in the basilica symbolized the calling of the people to greet the approaching pope. In modern times it reminds people to “ring out” the goodness and the glory of God.