a resource of information on the origin & future of Richmond Hill, NY USA

The History of
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish
in Richmond Hill

The following historic compilation on the history of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish has been researched and provided by Carl Ballenas.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre A history of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish must begin with its patron saint and to the community and its members into which this church was founded.

Saint Benedict Joseph Labre was born in France more than two hundred years ago. In his short life, he lived to be only 35 years old; this poor wandering man chose a life of extreme poverty, hunger, rags and silent contemplation. His sanctity was recognized by many and when he died in Rome in 1783 the children ran through the streets crying, "The saint is dead!" The process of his canonization was begun immediately but was hampered by the French Revolution. In 1883, the one hundredth anniversary of Benedict Joseph's death, Pope Leo XIII canonized him sainthood.

The community that would nourish Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Parish began in 1868. This area of lush forests and farmland lay merely one mile west of the old town of Jamaica and was often called West Jamaica by many for want of a better name. At what is now 111th Street and Jamaica Avenue stood the tiny farming hamlet of Clarenceville created in 1853.

On June 29, 1868 a New York lawyer Albon Platt Man and his partner, landscape architect, Edward Richmond purchased the Lefferts farm. Their purpose was to turn the farm into a new settlement and they would eventually name it Richmond Hill. It would become one of the earliest residential communities on Long Island. It was one of the first so-called "garden" developments; followed later by Forest Hills and Kew Gardens.

Over the next year, streets and avenues were laid out and the land divided into lots. The area where Myrtle, Lefferts and Railroad Avenues meet Jamaica Avenue, along with the completed and commodious Richmond Hill Depot, earned this section the name "Gateway of Richmond Hill."

When the first advertisements on this new garden community were published in 1870, Richmond Hill had no more than 250 acres and was located north of Jamaica Avenue. The land south of Jamaica Avenue was sparsely populated and was covered with orchards and farmland.

The community of Clarenceville and Richmond Hill coexisted for many years but the village of Richmond Hill would soon over shadow the smaller and older hamlet. By 1885 a movement came about to create a new village east of Clarenceville a south of Richmond Hill. The proprietor of this development was Frederick W. Dunton, a nephew of Austin Corbin, president of the Long Island Railroad. Mr. Dunton was the president of the "Bicycle Railroad" and became interested in the development of real estate on Long Island in 1883. Along with William Zielger, who was a large land holder the village of Morris Park was created. The place was so called because many years earlier it had been owned by a Mr. Morris. It had formerly been known as Morris Grove, originally a ten acre tract of woodland enclosed by a rail fence and with a crude frame structure which served as a shelter against rain. It was a favorite picnic ground for many years. The railroad established a station there and called it Morris Park.

During the years 1872 to 1878 a young man was doing his priestly studies in Rome. Undoubtedly this young seminarian had heard much about the Blessed Benedict Joseph and had cultivated a devotion to him. It is said that the saint's humility appealed strongly to him. The name of this young man was Charles E. McDonnell, who on April 25, 1892 was consecrated the second Bishop of Brooklyn in Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York by Archbishop Corrigan. On the second of May the new Bishop crossed the East River and took possession of his new diocese which included all of Long Island at the time. Brooklyn, on the western end of his diocese was a city in its own right; and Queens was a sprawling county of scattered hamlets and villages, counting among them Clarenceville, Richmond Hill and Morris Park.

The small group of Catholics who had settled in Clarenceville, Richmond Hill and Morris Park would travel to Saint Monica's in Jamaica or to Saint Elizabeth's in Woodhaven to hear Mass. The neighborhood was predominately Protestant and many of the original settlers were of New England stock. However, the few Catholics decided to petition the new Bishop of Brooklyn to found a parish in their area.

Mr. Thomas Lally, a builder and real estate dealer of Morris Park, who lived on 115th Street and 95th Avenue, was chosen to petition the new Bishop to establish a parish in the community. The request was granted and on July 12th, 1892 the young Bishop visited the Catholics and "expressed himself as thoroughly pleased with the surroundings and purchased eight lots at an unusually low figure." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle - 1892) The eight lots were found in the hamlet of Clarenceville on the Stoothoff farm, located between Jamaica Avenue and Atlantic Avenue. They were sold to the Bishop by Joel Fowler for a price of $2,300. Three days later he appointed Rev. William J. Maguire to the pastorate. At the same time the Bishop placed the infant parish under the protection of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. It was the first of many parishes established during his episcopate. It is the only parish in the world that has been placed under the protection of this poor wandering saint. The original parish boundaries extended from the Rockaway division of the Long Island Railroad to Van Wyck Avenue and from the Jamaica Town line to Jamaica Bay.

Reverend Father William MaguireFather William Maguire was born in Brooklyn. He made his classical studies in Saint John's College and his theological studies at Niagara University. He had the distinction of being the first St. John's graduate to be ordained to the priesthood. For fourteen years he had served as assistant to Father Moran, the pastor of the Church of the Nativity, Brooklyn. The new pastor went bravely to work, visiting the Catholics of his scattered parish. He rented Fielder's Hall on Jamaica Avenue at the northeast corner of 111th Street in the hamlet of Clarenceville and celebrated the first Mass on July 24, 1892 for a congregation of sixty people, mostly of Irish and German nationality. He offered two masses that day, one at eight o'clock and the second at ten-thirty. The first collection amounted to $29.54.

By July 29, 1892 a number of the congregation felt that the eight lots, located in Clarenceville did not suit their needs and bargained for 12 lots on Johnson Avenue (118th Street) in Morris Park. The price was set at $4,300. Many in Clarenceville were against the new site and a petition, containing over 70 names was sent to the Bishop but the new site prevailed.

The first rectory was a house rented by Father Maguire and was located on 116th Street near Atlantic Avenue. The first Trustees were Timothy Deehan and James McEnery. Mr. Deehan had a large farm on 111th Street just south of Atlantic Avenue. He kept his horse and carriage at the services of the new pastor and often accompanied Father Maguire on his sick calls and pastoral visits. Father Maguire did not have any assistants at that time and had to keep oil in the lamps shovel snow and work the furnace by himself.

A glance at the records reveals that twelve children were baptized the first year of which the first was Frederick Charles Handte, on August 14. Mr. Patrick Moriarty and Rose Mary Courtney had the distinction of being the first to take their nuptial vows in the newly founded parish on November 23, 1892. The first marriage in the newly built church belonged to Mr. Moriarty's cousin Michael Moriarty.

Meanwhile, preparations were made for Bishop McDonnell to lay the cornerstone for the new church on November 6, 1892. The wooden church was designed by the well known architect Mr. Raymond F. Almirall and the contract to build it fell to Mr. Mulligan. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle article described the ceremony that took place. Present at the laying of the cornerstone were more than one thousand people. The music was sung by a chorus of twenty voices all from the Church of the Nativity (Father Maguire's former parish). The membership of the new parish was about four hundred parishioners. "In the cornerstone was placed a box containing copies of the daily newspapers, specimens of the different American coins and a history of the parish and its work prepared by the pastor". (Although this original church no longer exists, the cornerstone does. In 1916, a new brick church was erected and the old church was moved to 117th Street to serve as a Parish Hall. On the second side of the cornerstone a new date of 1916 was engraved. Later the building became a school annex and was finally torn down in 1938 to make way for the new school extension. The original 1892 cornerstone with the two dates was saved and reset into the foundation of the school addition.)

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