The Deacon's Bench

This weekend, my parish, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, is celebrating its feast day, as it does every year, on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the parish, and the 80th year of the school. Saturday night, we had a large concelebrated mass with retired Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily presiding. Below is the homily I preached at that mass, as well as at all the masses on Sunday.

About 20 years ago, a songwriter who grew up in Forest Hills – Paul Simon — wrote that “these are the days of miracles and wonders.”

I thought about that when I started to put together my thoughts for this weekend. The story of this parish in Forest Hills is one of “miracles and wonders,” too.

In the gospel we just heard, two words recur – joy and rejoicing. The message is all about God’s mercy and love for us – and about celebrating something that is treasure.

This weekend, as we celebrate our parish feast, we celebrate a treasure, too. We mark the 80th year of our school. And this date has special significance: It was 90 years ago yesterday, September 15th, 1917, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, that Father Joseph McLaughlin was assigned as the parish’s first pastor.

I’m going to talk a little about our history this morning, and also about the woman at the heart of it all, our patroness, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.

The Jesuit writer James Martin was a member of this parish before he became a priest. He told me one time he used to call this “Our Lady of Queens Boulevard.” I’m sure a lot of people have done that. It’s such a landmark.

But ironically, 80 years ago, when our school began, there wasn’t a Queens Boulevard. There wasn’t much of anything. It was country. There was a ragged two-lane road called Hoffman Boulevard – later known as Queens Boulevard — that stretched out to Long Island. And not much else.

A lot of this area was, literally, a dump. In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald described driving to Long Island through “a valley of ashes…a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens.”

That was Queens, in the 1920s.

But in 1927, there were miracles and wonders. Charles Lindburgh flew across the Atlantic. Henry Ford began producing the Model A. In October, The Jazz Singer opened and motion pictures talked. The New York Yankees, with its fabled Murderers Row, swept the World Series. William Paley created something called the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System. A year later, he dropped Phonographic and “CBS” was born.

And that fall, in the countryside of Queens, Father McLaughlin was finalizing the plans for a school at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.

The parish was 10 years old. A census at the time counted just 78 Catholics. Not 78 families. 78 men, women and children. They worshipped first in private homes, then in a small wooden chapel built on this property.

By the 1920s, they were desperate to build a bigger church. But before building the church that we are in right now, the families wanted a school. That was what was most important to them. They broke ground in January of 1928. And eight months later, it opened, with 211 students. At its peak, in 1955, the school had 859 students…and 21 sisters, from the Immaculate Heart of Mary, IHM, teaching.

Those were indeed the days of miracles and wonders!

But this feast we celebrate this weekend is more than an exercise in nostalgia. As I mentioned earlier, we are here, as well, to honor the woman to whom this parish is dedicated: Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs. I’d like us to consider just what that means.

It’s a title that joins Mary in a profound way to her son’s passion and death.

But it also joins her uniquely to us. To all her children. All those who suffer. Because Mary knows.

We are used to thinking of Mary as a quiet, almost passive figure. But we should dispel that notion. Just think for a moment about her life.

This is a young girl who spoke with angels – who not only listened to what an angel said, but challenged him and questioned him until he had to remind her: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

This is a teenager who, pregnant and unmarried, dropped everything and went to take care of her cousin before she took care of herself.

Just a few months later, she fled the country and a murderous dictator with her newborn baby. She became a refugee in an alien land.

This is a mother, and a widow, who years later watched as her child was imprisoned, and then executed.

In short, it’s hard to escape the fact that Mary was a woman of extraordinary resilience and — faith. She did what she had to do, trusting completely in God. At every challenge, she rose to the occasion.

I like to think that the title “Queen of Martyrs” implies not only the tragedy she witnessed, and the pain she felt – but also acknowledges her strength and courage in the face of brutality and suffering.

I also think that Mary speaks in a profound way to our own time — to all who have to face persecution, or terror, or loss. She bears with us all the martyrdoms of life. She offers us understanding. And she points the way.

Remember the wedding feast at Cana. After having the audacity to tell the Son of God that he should do something, she tries another tack. She pulls aside a servant and points to Jesus and says: “Do whatever he tells you.” Those are the last words she speaks in any of the gospels. It is her great message to the world. Do whatever he tells you.

It is a message the founders of this parish sought to live – and we can nothing greater than to follow that example and uphold the beautiful legacy that they have left us.

This morning, as we prepare to receive Mary’s son in the Eucharist, we rededicate ourselves to Him… through her…just as the founders of this parish did all those years ago.

Look around you at what started with just 78 men, women and children. Look at the beautiful shrine that grew from Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes.”

I think the first miracle was that this parish was built at all.

But…that miracle wasn’t the last. Thousands of lives have been shaped by what has been done here, in our school and in this parish.

Paul’s letter to Timothy today tells us: “Indeed, the grace of the Lord has been abundant.”

We have been richly blessed. And we thank God and Our Lady for making the impossible possible.

The motto of our parish assembly next week says it so well: “In thanksgiving to God for all that we have been, for all that we are, and for all that we will be.”

My friends, that is our prayer. And that is our hope.

Paul Simon was right. But God’s continuing grace, and Mary’s continued presence in the life of this parish reminds us: the “days of miracles and wonders”…aren’t over.

In so many ways, they’re just beginning.

Photo: Interior, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, Forest Hills, New York

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