Devoted priests and parishioners of St. Patrick’s in Verplanck, at its founding 175th years ago, crossed a river on foot across the ice in the winter and by boat in the summer just to get to the church.
“St. Patrick parish was the original parish for the entire upper Westchester County 175 years ago,” said Father George Oonnoonny, who has served as pastor of St. Christopher’s, Buchanan-St. Patrick’s, Verplanck, since 2015, the year the two parishes merged as a result of the archdiocese’s Making All Things New pastoral planning process. Before that, he had been administrator of St. Patrick’s since 2014.
“This was one of the mission centers of the county in those days,” he said of St. Patrick’s. “From here, priests went to the upper counties in several locations, from the Pennsylvania border to the Connecticut border,” establishing a number of parishes from St. Patrick’s.
Cardinal Dolan celebrated Mass for the parish of St. Christopher and St. Patrick at the St. Patrick’s site in Verplanck, Sunday, Oct. 7, on the occasion of St. Patrick’s 175th anniversary.
“It was a joyful moment for the entire parish and the entire town of Verplanck,” Father Oonnoonny said.
“Whenever I go out in this neighborhood, all say, ‘Oh, Father, it was a great celebration.” They all talk about that. I feel so happy when they say that the celebration influenced them spiritually.”
Among lifelong parishioners the cardinal acknowledged at the Mass were those baptized at St. Patrick’s 94, 96 and 98 years ago, Father Oonnoonny said.
“The presence of the Church in this area is very important,” he added. “In this Verplanck community, it is their second home.”
So committed are the elderly parishioners that for three months a number of them rehearsed special liturgical hymns for the anniversary celebration. Some younger parishioners from St. Christopher’s joined them.
“It was a celebration of the entire community,” Father Oonnoonny said.
The pastor noted that after the cardinal’s Mass “some new families came up and said they want to be part of the parish family. I’m sure the cardinal’s message and celebration influenced them a lot.” Among the themes of the cardinal’s homily was “the importance of continuing the faith for the future generation,” the pastor said.
Father Oonnoonny “welcomed wholeheartedly” those new families who asked to join the parish.
The parish of St. Christopher’s and St. Patrick’s has 900 registered families. The pastor estimated there are an additional 300-400 “newly immigrated families” from South America and Central America.
Fifteen years ago, the parish had many Irish and Italian parishioners. Today there are also many families from Ecuador, Colombia and Puerto Rico. The multicultural tapestry “is very affirming and very strong,” Father Oonnoonny said. “Everybody has a place in the faith community. If you want to cherish and nourish your Irish-Italian background, yes, that’s also there. If you want to cherish your South American and Central American cultural background, that’s also there.”
In 2017, there were 38 baptisms, 27 funerals and 11 weddings. There also were 46 confirmations this year.
Assisting Father Oonnoonny is Deacon Robert Lyons. Lisa Quist is the coordinator of religious education, which has more than 200 youngsters enrolled in the first through eighth grades. Rosa Sanmartin coordinates the parish’s Spanish ministry, and Louis Pasato coordinates the Spanish spiritual ministries.
The parish has 12 different ministry groups in the Spanish and English communities, encompassing spiritual endeavors through evangelization outreach, Adoration and Benediction before the Blessed Sacrament, charismatic prayer, and myriad devotions, street processions and celebrations that honor the Blessed Mother in different patronages.
“Those newly immigrated people work hard for 10 to 12 hours a day, and then they come to the church in the evening for prayer—for two hours plus, they spend in prayer” during the weekdays in the chapel at St. Christopher’s, the pastor said. “Every day the church is fully occupied until 9:30, 10 o’clock at night.”
Many who regularly attend Mass at the St. Christopher site are mindful that their parents and grandparents came from St. Patrick’s, Father Oonnoonny said. St. Patrick’s parish school, which was also attended by youngsters from St. Christopher’s, opened in 1890 and closed in 1991.
Father Felix Vilanis, who had been a professor of literature and canon law at St. John’s College, which was later renamed Fordham, became the first pastor in 1842. That spring, property was set aside by a John Henry for the use of Catholics in the town of Cortlandt, on the condition that a church be built on the site within a year. Construction began that year, likely using brick and labor that were local and donated. Work was completed in the fall of 1843, although Father Vilanis had become ill and died without seeing the church’s completion.
The site commanded a view of the Hudson River that was important in the lives of parishioners. The present church stands on the same river view site.
The parish history colorfully chronicles St. Patrick’s centennial celebration on Oct. 24, 1943. The village was decorated in red, white and blue banners, and the festivities culminated in a parade from the school to the church, followed by Mass celebrated by Cardinal Francis Spellman.
St. Patrick’s Church burned in February 1980. In the interim, daily Mass was offered at the rectory and weekend Masses at the Verplanck firehouse.
Although it was a sad time in the life of St. Patrick’s, it proved to be a period of cohesion as the parish family rebuilt the church together.
Father Oonnoonny underscored throughout the anniversary year that “the founding members of the parish certainly made a big sacrifice so that their children and the children’s children had a place of worship, and they continued that faith. Certainly the current generation has the same responsibility to sacrifice their effort and energy for the future generation. Many people are doing that and I am really happy to see that sacrifice is being done for the continuation of our parish life.”
In conjunction with the 175th anniversary of St. Patrick’s, Father Oonnoonny led a pilgrimage of 18 parishioners to the Holy Land in October.
“It was very important for the people,” he said. “They wanted to uplift this place with some spiritual element when we were talking about the celebrations. They came forward with the idea. It was a very successful one.”