Friars, Parishioners on NYC’s Upper West Side Participate in Masses of Transition

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

NEW YORK – At liturgies celebrated in three languages and with visual symbolism throughout, the Franciscan friars transferred ministerial responsibilities and administrative operations of Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great Parish to the Archdiocese of New York – ending Holy Name Province’s three decades of service at the Upper West Side church.

Larry Ford, OFM, pastor, along with John Heffernan, OFM, Barry Langley, OFM, and Matthew Pravetz, OFM, concelebrated with the incoming archdiocesan priests three Masses of transition on the weekend of Sept. 12 – including a tri-lingual Saturday vigil in English, French and Spanish, the Sunday morning Mass in English, and a 5:30 p.m. Mass in Spanish.

All of the liturgies were geared toward the parish’s diverse cultural groups, and they formalized the change in leadership from the Franciscans to the archdiocese, according to Larry, who said great effort went into the symbolism used to convey the transition – from tangible items – such as presenting the Book of Life, which contains the names of those who passed on, to the new priests – to more subtle visual impact, such as the way the processions occurred.

“In the opening procession, the Archdiocese of New York priests were in front of the line, and we were reversed at the end of the Mass,” said Larry. “The most significant symbol was the exchange of the presider’s chair seating. I was in the principal celebrant’s chair at the beginning of Mass and the new pastor assumed that position following Communion, at the end of Mass. I did the opening prayer from there, he did the post-Communion prayer from there.”

“All of the gestures and positioning – for example, the friars leading the procession at the beginning of the Masses, symbolically leading the new priests to the congregation – were simple but powerful ways of showing the transfer of leadership,” said Larry.

Conveying Change and Gratitude
The friars also displayed the seal of the parish to symbolize the authority of their action of handing the parish to the archdiocese. Larry asked the congregation to stand and welcome their new priests – the pastor, Fr. Thomas Lynch, and parochial vicar, Fr. Angel D’Angelo Jiménez, both of whom addressed the congregation.

“Our intent was to make sure the congregation knew this was a celebration of transition, and that the transition was not about the friars. Although the farewell was not about us, I wanted all of the friars to convey their gratitude to the congregation,” explained Larry.

Holy Name Church and School around 1914. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

“I have never left a place that I felt had such a significant impact on me – and one where I made a positive impact – than Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory,” added Larry, who had served at the parish since January 2009.

So powerful was the impression of the symbolism at the transition Masses that the new pastor said he would use some of the same symbols when he transferred the responsibility of his former parish to the new pastor.

The friars and congregation learned in early January that Holy Name Province would be withdrawing from the parish in the summer. The departure was part of the Province’s Fraternal Ecology initiative, which resulted in the withdrawal from nine ministry locations this year due to the declining friar population that makes it difficult to staff all Fraternities-in-Mission.

Although the initial schedule called for the transition to take place in early summer, the pandemic delayed the friars’ departure from the Upper West Side parish. All of the friars were pleased with the transition and the eight months that led to it.

Larry said he made sure the congregation was well-prepared, particularly since “they’ll be moving the parish community into the future.” The parish was left in good financial health, as evidenced in staff being paid during the pandemic, and the food outreach program and thrift shop not missing a beat.

“This was very important because we saw during the pandemic people coming to the church for assistance who never needed help before. We were also able to complete the planned restoration of part of the parish’s organ,” Larry said.

“We made sure the congregation was as well-prepared as could be by holding community meetings in the spring,” he added. “We also made sure the parish was well-positioned financially so that we could pay all of our employees throughout the pandemic while remaining debt-free.  This helped the parish maintain its mission and a position of strength not only during the pandemic, but for the transition in welcoming the new priests who would be leading the community into the future.”

Reflecting on the Transition
Barry agreed that the transition Masses and the use of symbolism were an effective aid.

“They helped the community appreciate the Franciscans’ 30 years of service, and at the same time, they welcomed the new pastoral team to the parish. The symbolic ‘handing over’ to the new [priests] the care of the community [reminded me] of the assumption of responsibility by the friars for St. Joseph’s Parish in Wilmington, Delaware, from the Josephite community 26 years ago. At that time, three other friars and I used the parish seal, the baptismal record book, and other symbolic items to illustrate the transfer of pastoral care of that African-American community to the Franciscans,” recalled Barry.

“The community at 96th Street was certainly sad to see the friars leave, but I believe they also feel a significant level of ownership of their parish to not let go of the Franciscan charism that they have embraced for three decades,” said Barry. “When we visit the parish in the future, we will find – as we can in other parishes we have left over the years – a wonderful Franciscan presence even though the friars are no longer ministering there.”

John also reflected on the imprint that the Franciscans have left on the parish. “Upon learning of our departure from Holy Name Church, we all immediately intuited that our departure was destined to be heart-wrenching for us friars and our parish community. As the pandemic materialized, we realized that saying goodbye was going to be unlike any other,” he said.

“We were able to enjoy the presence and goodness of the parish staff through the summer and until our departure – a particularly fortunate aspect of the whole event,” said John, who is now stationed in Silver Spring, Maryland. “By virtue of excellent guidance from Larry, the staff was able to continue to provide vital service to our neighborhood through the pandemic lockdown. Until our departure, we all supported one another and were able to share a fond farewell.”

He continued, “In many ways, the pandemic made it seem as if we had already finished. I felt just anxious to complete the transition and move on. There were just a few opportunities to listen to our parishioners’ sadness and good wishes. But the good people of the parish found creative ways to offer words of thanks, well wishes, and generous blessings. I carry these memories with loving care.”

For Matthew, the transition Masses would better be called celebrations of the changeover.

“The theme was clearly not one of alteration, but of carrying forward,” Matthew said. “The major participants were the parishioners. It was they who commenced the next phase of their parish’s history of living their faith. Larry orchestrated a visually brilliant liturgy, during which the present team gracefully moved to the wing, and the new team graciously received its pastoral symbols and mandate from the assembly.”

Matthew, who lived at Holy Name Friary for 12 years, said that the strength of the fraternal spirit on 96th Street will always be memorable for him.

“Without exception, from the first day I moved in until the day that I traveled over the George Washington Bridge to my new home in New Jersey, the seasons proceeded with a tangible experience of hospitality,” said Matthew. “It was a major force of the fraternal plan and a group endeavor to provide welcome not just with a guestroom, but with the more irreplaceable events like a morning conversation over a cup of coffee and buttered toast.”

The Province began staffing the then-122-year-old parish on the corner of 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in fall 1990 when the Provincial Administration decided to pursue additional ministries in urban areas. For 30 years, friars administered the sacraments and provided many ministries to the community that included food, clothing, and other human services. In 2015, Holy Name Parish merged with St. Gregory the Great Parish.

Over the years, the friars at the West Side parish acknowledged their partners-in-ministry by presenting them with the HNP Francis Medal. This summer, they recognized a staff member and two active volunteers.

Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

Editor’s note: Videos of the Masses celebrated the weekend of Sept. 12 can be found on the Facebook page of Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great Parish.