If we were to travel back almost 100 years to the 1920s, when Saint Vincent Ferrer parish was founded, we would be hard-pressed to recognize the neighborhood we call home.
East Flatbush was a rural area, containing just a few houses, dirt roads, gas street lights that were lit at dusk, huge oak trees, green fields and farms. When it rained, Farragut Road would get so muddy that it would be impossible to even cross the street to visit your neighbors.
A farm ran from Brooklyn Avenue to Albany Avenue, and from Foster Avenue to Glenwood Road. Old Mrs. Sali, who owned the farm, cultivated beautiful fruits and vegetables to sell. On Glenwood Road, between East 37th and East 38th Street, there were two small frame public school houses (the original home of P.S. 198) where the neighborhood children were taught. Mothers used to bring lunches and picnic with the children under the old oak trees that lined Glenwood Road.
On the north side of Foster Avenue, running from Brooklyn Avenue to Nostrand Avenue, was Paerdegat Woods, more familiarly known at Farragut Woods, where the Flatbush Water Works had their artesian wells. There were a few stores along Nostrand Avenue, and on Avenue H, Hitchings Lumber Yard extended from Nostrand Avenue all the way over to Albany Avenue. For the most part, the neighborhood was placid, uncultivated and countrified.
The area was still so undeveloped that housewives depended completely on peddlers with their horse-drawn carts to bring the necessities of life to them. The vegetable man, the bread man, the meat man and the fish man made regular stops throughout the neighborhood. There were even peddlers of clothing and housewares.
Cars were scarce, and most families counted on foot power to get where they wanted to go, including making the long trek to St. Jerome’s Church on Nostrand and Newkirk Avenues for Mass. As more and more Catholic families began moving into the “suburbs” of East Flatbush, it became evident that a new parish had to be formed.
In 1923, Bishop Thomas E. Molloy appointed Father Joseph F. Murphy to found the Parish of Saint Vincent Ferrer. A private home on the corner of East 37th Street and Glenwood Road was used for a Rectory. Father Murphy made contact with several active and interested families who formed the nucleus of the new parish.
The first Mass, a private one, was celebrated at the home of a Mr. Ford, who resided at 1607 Brooklyn Avenue, the house next-door to the present Rectory, which his now owned by Richard Mahabir.
In September 1923, a tent was raised on the northwest corner of Glenwood Road and Brooklyn Avenue (diagonally opposite the Rectory), where Masses were celebrated for the entire parish. In October, parishioners held a bazaar that was such a huge success that they were able to purchase the land across the street where the Rectory and New School now stand. From September until December, Mass was celebrated in the tent, and many never forgot the cold winds that blew through the tent on those blustery winter morns.
In December, a little frame church was erected. The first Mass was celebrated on the Sunday before Christmas 1923. The structure served as the parish church for nine years, long after the number of parishioners had doubled.
As soon as Father Murphy was able, he purchased the land on Glenwood Road from East 37th Street to East 38th Street.
In the late 1920s, the housing boom was on. Blocks that had four or five homes on each side now had 10 to 20. The streets were finally being paved, traffic lights were being installed, telephone poles were going up, and gas and electric company trucks could be seen everywhere. Stores were opening on Glenwood Road and Albany Avenue, and along Avenue H. The subway had been finished and “The Junction” was becoming a business district. In the early 1930s, trolley cars ran on the main arteries — Nostrand Avenue, Rogers Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, and Utica Avenue. A bus started running along Glenwood Road.
By this time, the area was developing so rapidly that the two wooden public school houses had been torn down, and the children were attending the new P.S. 198 on Albany Avenue and Farragut Road. In October 1931, ground was being broken for the present church-school building. The pioneer days now seemed to be over, and Father Murphy looked forward to a growing parish with buildings adequate to service it.
Sadly, Father Murphy did not live to see the completion of his building efforts. He died suddenly on March 28, 1932, at the home of his twin brother, Dr. Edward J. Murphy, in Belle Harbor. Father Murphy had been in poor health for the previous seven weeks and had recently undergone surgery. His condition was not considered serious, and he had been recuperating at his brother’s residence for a few weeks before returning to parish duties. He was 52.
He had marked his 25th anniversary of ordination in June, 1931, with a parish celebration. Father Murphy had also been the diocesan director of the Catholic Teachers’ association for many years and was well-known as a preacher and lecturer. For several years, ne was a member of the editorial staff of The Tablet.
In his homily at the Funeral Mass, Father James Charters, pastor of St. Catherine of Sienna Church, St. Albans, spoke of Father Murphy’s work as a priest and educator, and praised his untiring work on behalf of Saint Vincent Ferrer parish.
“Death, in selecting Father Murphy as her latest victim, has robbed the diocese of a brilliant preacher,” Father Charters declared, “and bowed the head of every member of this parish in sorrow and grief, and has deprived his relatives and acquaintances of a sincere and loyal friend.”
In June of 1932, Father John Geary was appointed the second pastor of Saint Vincent Ferrer. He oversaw the completion of the combination church-school building. The first Mass was celebrated in the new church in October, 1932. The little wooden church then became the “Lyceum,” which was used for basketball, dances and Boy Scout meetings.
That same year, the parish school opened. Sister Pascal, the first principal, and a staff of five Sisters of Saint Dominic from Kentucky, operated the eight-classroom school. There were five grades and an enrollment of 150. When the Chancery Office made its survey of this countrified area, it was stated that the neighborhood would never warrant more than eight classrooms. To everyone’s amazement, the Sisters had to release their classes in May of 1934 so that the roof could be raised and another floor of eight classrooms added to the existing building.
A private home next to the Lyceum was purchased to house the Sisters, and the structure served as a convent for the next 10 years. The convent adjoining the church-school building was completed in 1942.
By the late 1940s, East Flatbush had been built up considerably. Empty lots were now a novelty, and most of the blocks were completed. Hitchings Lumber Yard burned down, and new houses were going up all around “the cut.” Apartment houses were the new rage to accommodate the post-War population boom. The Flatbush Water Works had been closed down for several years and the Farragut Woods were disappearing under the bulldozers. And influx of young Catholic families was expanding the parish far beyond any expectations. In 1949, the old wooden church that had stood for 24 years and the frame house that had been used as the first convent were razed in preparation for the construction of the Rectory.
By this time, the parish owned the land that the church-school and convent stood on, and the property on Glenwood Road between East 37th Street and Brooklyn Avenue. The old rectory became a library, staffed by members of the Rosary Society.
On April 23, 1950, Father Geary was elevated to the rand of a Domestic Prelate, with the title of Right Reverend Monsignor. His ambition was to complete the building of the rectory and then to build a new church on the site where the New School stands today.
Unfortunately, just one year after this happy occasion, Msgr. Geary died on Friday, Nov. 23rd at the age of 73 after a long illness.
In his homily at the Funeral Mass, Msgr. Joseph McLaughlin, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs parish, Forest Hills, noted Msgr. Geary’s special love for Saint Vincent Ferrer parish.
“There is, however, in every priest’s heart a parish that he loves above any other…There are priests, too, who, though happy in their several parishes, hold out one dearest of all…This, I am sure, was the experience of Msgr. Geary. He knew that coming to Saint Vincent Ferrer was to be his most important charge of all, and that he was destined to remain here for the rest of his life.”
“He accordingly prepared to give his flock the pest of his pastoral care…Father Geary came here 20 years ago. It is almost an intrusion to tell you, who know better than outsiders, the great good of these long years…The high spiritual standard of this parish was established and maintained by him. Look around and see the physical evidence in the parish building supplementing the work of Father Murphy, the securing of the necessary grounds and his definite plans for the crowning glory of a beautiful church were the ambition, but not accomplished in his time.”
After Msgr. Geary’s death, Father Charles Carmody, then-moderator of the Rosary Confraternity, served as administrator until 1952, when Msgr. William J. Gately was appointed as Saint Vincent Ferrer’s third pastor.
By 1954, the school enrollment had swelled beyond the capacity of the 16 classrooms of the school. Msgr. Gately made arrangements with the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught in Nativity School to accommodate the overflow of children. Msgr. Gately’s dream was to have every Catholic child in a Catholic school. To that end, the put aside the plans to build a new church and eventually build the Msgr. Gately Auditorium — a combination gym/classroom/meeting room building. The “New School,” as it is known, opened its doors in 1967.
In 1962, a new activity for the youth of the parish was started by Father John F. Keppler — The Saint Vincent Ferrer Marching Band. Originally begun as an offshoot of the parish’s Boy and Girl Scout troops, membership was later opened to all the youth of the parish. Under the direction of Matthew F. Walsh, the band grew rapidly in size and musical talent. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were both a fife-and-drum corps for younger members and a full brass band for the senior members. The band was one of the most popular youth activities in the parish. The Saint Vincent Ferrer Marching Band garnered a great many awards at city and state competitions and parades, and its reputation for excellence placed it among the most well-known parish bands in the diocese.
In accordance with the changes instituted by the Second Vatican Council, the church underwent some modifications, the most significant of which was the erection of a new altar platform in the sanctuary, which held a simple wooden altar donated by Mr. And Mrs. Kenneth Gibbons in memory of their son, Brian, who was killed in the Vietnam War.
Among the many changes in the liturgy was the use of more music during Mass. The parish already had a well-established adult choir, but a new musical entity the Saint Vincent Ferrer Folk Group, comprised of the youth of the parish, soon made the 12:15 Mass among the parish’s most popular.
Another of the fruits of Vatican II was the foundation in 1969 of the lay Parish Council, which continues to guide the parish to this day.
Upon Msgr. Gately’s death on August 12, 1970, Father William F. Carr was appointed the fourth pastor of Saint Vincent Ferrer.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the school transition from a free school staffed exclusively by nuns to a school taught by lay teachers and paid for by tuition. This change necessitated the buildup of the parish’s Religious Education Program to teach the faith to the increasing number of Catholic students attending public school.
The parish marked its 50th Anniversary with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Francis J. Mugavero on October 28, 1973. To commemorate the anniversary, Mrs. John Corley donated the statue of the Resurrected Christ which hung in the sanctuary in memory of her brother, Father Charles T. Carow, the famous priest who broke the color barrier in the diocese’s CYO bowling leagues.
By the time it reached the 50-year mark, Saint Vincent Ferrer had earned a reputation as one of the most active parishes in the diocese. From the Rosary Confraternity and Holy Name Societies, to an active youth ministry and a hugely successful sports program for the children of the parish, Saint Vincent Ferrer continued to thrive.
The church interior underwent an extensive renovation in 1975, which included the removal of the side confessionals, the creation of the reconciliation room in the former baptistery at the right of the sanctuary, and the installation of the church’s stained-glass windows. Mass attendance and grown to the point that Sunday Masses also were offered in the Msgr. Gately Auditorium, resurrecting a practice from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when Masses were celebrated in the church basement to accommodate the large number of attendees.
When Father Carr retired in November, 1979, Father John J. O’Sullivan was appointed the fifth pastor of Saint Vincent Ferrer and was installed on November 29. During Father O’Sullivan’s tenure, the parish began to change from a predominantly Irish parish to one which is now mostly Caribbean. As a way to minister to the changing population, a Mass in French was instituted for the growing numbers of Haitian immigrants who had begun to call Saint Vincent Ferrer home. At first, Father O’Sullivan, who spoke fluent French, celebrated the weekly Masses himself. Later on, Father Jordan LaPere, a Jesuit priest, came to the parish to minister to the Haitian community.
It was during Father O’Sullivan’s pastorate that the parish school had its first lay principal: Robert Katulak. The early 1980s also saw the institution of the position of Director of Religious Education, created to oversee the parish’s religious education programs, including CCD and RCIA programs. Sister Helen Byrne, CSJ, was the first to hold that post.
The parish marked its 60th Anniversary in 1983 with a year of celebrations, including a dinner-dance, Anniversary Mass, and a second major renovation of the church.
Tragedy struck Saint Vincent Ferrer in 1985 when Father O’Sullivan suffered a stroke. Although he made a near-full recovery, the demands of leading the parish proved to be too taxing. Upon his retirement to Southampton, L.I. in 1986, Father Coman V. Brady became the sixth pastor of Saint Vincent Ferrer.
During Father Brady’s tenure, our East Flatbush neighborhood had stabilized after a decade of transition. He was instrumental in helping the “new” parishioners to feel a real sense of ownership of the parish, encouraging participation and leadership across the entire spectrum of the community. Father Brady’s early years at Saint Vincent’s saw the introduction of Gospel music and revivals, while its traditional music and parish missions were retained.
The parish became home to “Sounds in the Spirit of Praise,” the diocesan Gospel choir, under the direction of Saint Vincent’s first Gospel music ministers, Darcel and Alex Wilamowski.
St. Vincent Ferrer also underwent a spiritual renewal, with a growing Charismatic movement, a thriving RCIA program, and the establishment of the Legion of Mary. Over the previous decade, the enrollment in the Sunday School program had doubled, reaching record numbers.
In the area of social action, the parish’s Saint Vincent de Paul Society took on a more active role in parish life, instituting the sandwich-making program, which continues to provide meals for the homeless.
Father Brady also oversaw the re-purposing of the former Convent building as the John and Gertrude Harrison Home for Mentally Disabled Adults, named for the longtime parishioners who served as volunteer directors of the parish’s long-running Saturday Center for the developmentally disabled.
In 1997, a new Cross was erected on the top of the church-school building to mark the opening of the parish’s 75th Anniversary celebrations. That jubilee year included the dedication of Saint Vincent Ferrer’s Monument to the Unborn, along with a parish picnic, sports day, an anniversary concert, and a 75th Anniversary dinner-dance.
Declining enrollment and increasing overhead costs forced the closure of Saint Vincent Ferrer School in June of 2009.
Tragedy visited the parish again when Father Brady died suddenly on July 20, 2009, after a brief illness.
Msgr. Joseph A. Nugent was appointed administrator of Saint Vincent Ferrer in November of 2009.
As a result of the school’s closing, the parish was left with a debt of $404,000, which threatened the parish’s continued existence. Msgr. Nugent worked with the parish’s newly-created Finance Council to formulate a Five-year Strategic Action Plan to repay the debt. As a result of the tremendous support of the parishioners, the parish debt to the diocese was paid in full by December, 2012.
Msgr. Nugent was transferred to Saints Peter and Paul/St. Agnes parish in the Spring of 2014, and Father Andre Bain was appointed temporary administrator. During his time at Saint Vincent Ferrer, Father Bain began some initial renovations to the church interior, moving the statues of the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph holding the Baby Jesus, and the Sacred Heart from the rear of the church and placing them on newly-constructed platforms on either side of the sanctuary.
In February of 2015, Father Rony Mendes, pastoral associate at Our Lady of Refuge, took on the added responsibility of serving as temporary administrator of Saint Vincent Ferrer.
Later that Spring, Father Antonius P. Gopaul was appointed administrator of St. Vincent Ferrer, and was installed as the parish’s seventh pastor in September of that year.
Father Gopaul has undertaken the monumental task of repairing, restoring and renovating the parish buildings, which had undetected design flaws that led to years of cumulative damage. He is also beginning preparations for the parish’s 100th anniversary in 2023.