Every year, the Catholic Guild at Our Lady of the Skies Chapel—the Catholic chapel of JFK Airport in New York City, shown above—hosts a fundraising luncheon and, as part of the festivities, names a Man of the Year, Woman of the Year, and Clergy of the Year. They have always honored a high-profile priest or bishop.
But this year, JFK’s chaplain the Rev. Chris Piasta decided to do something different. For the first time, the Catholic Guild honored a deacon.
The luncheon was held at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, Long Island. The museum has some interesting history:
It is located on land once part of Mitchel Air Force Base which, together with nearby Roosevelt Field and other airfields on the Hempstead Plains, was the site of many historic flights. In fact, so many seminal flights occurred in the area, that by the mid-1920s the cluster of airfields was already dubbed the “Cradle of Aviation”, the origin of the museum’s name.
It’s a spectacular setting, with various airplanes and memorabilia suspended from the ceiling. You can also take a walking tour the guides you through the history of aviation, all the way to Apollo 11.
What is more noteworthy, though, is the history of Our Lady of the Skies Chapel itself:
During World War II, Bob O’Brien, on leave from U.S. Customs, was serving in the Army in Europe. Under fire behind enemy lines, he promised Our Lady as he prayed that he would do something special for her if he got out alive to return to his wife, Mae Catherine and their daughters Mary Pat, Maureen and Gail. He returned safely to his family and to work at Idlewild Airport for U.S. Customs. While on vacation in Boston, he saw the new Chapel at Logan airport and decided to work for a Chapel at the New York Airport. Bob, along with Jim Schiebel, Ray Schiebel and Bill Lanning – all of U.S. Customs – contacted Fr. Arthur Herold, the pastor of Christ the King Parish in Springfield Gardens, and asked for a priest to offer Holy Mass at the airport for its employees, The manager of the Brass Rail Restaurant graciously agreed to its use for the Sunday morning Mass. Fr. Walter Missbach often came to offer the Mass. The Rosary was said each Thursday by airport and FAA employees in hangars and offices in the quonset huts.
The Catholic employees at the airport began to work on the idea of building an airport Chapel, the fundraising began and the Catholic Guild was formed. In 1953 a dance was held for this purpose in the Triangle Ballroom in Richmond Hill. A “get to know each other” dinner dance was held in the Battalion Hall in Elmhurst in 1954. The committee worked together with Msgr. Ronald McDonald of the Brooklyn Diocese Building Office on plans for an airport Chapel. In 1955 the new Our Lady of the Skies Chapel was dedicated. The priests from Christ the King Parish served the worshippers. Hundreds of airport employees and travelers attended the Masses each week.
In time, it developed into the intimate but prayerful space used today.
The annual luncheon is a chance to raise funds to keep it going and support this vital ministry of travel. I was delighted and truly privileged to be a part of the festivities.
In my brief remarks, I noted some history being made:
I truly honored and humbled to be here, and especially humbled to be the first deacon to be honored at this luncheon. It comes at a timely moment: Next year marks the 50th
anniversary of the restoration of the diaconate, when Pope Paul VI brought back the diaconate as a full and permanent order in the church. In 1968, there were no permanent deacons in the world. Today, there are over 40,000, roughly half of them here in the United States. It’s one of the great success stories of Vatican II—and, really, of our modern Church.
I want to accept this on behalf of all the deacons in the Diocese of Brooklyn, and on behalf of so many deacons around the country and around the world who minister to the people of God every day—quietly, faithfully, selflessly, many of them as chaplains at airports. So many of them are unsung heroes. Thank you, Bishop DiMarzio, for recognizing that—for being a friend to deacons, and a great supporter of our ministry.
Our Holy Father Pope Francis has spoken often of how we as a Church need to accompany the faithful on their journey—and it seems to me that the very presence of this chapel dedicated to Our Lady helps to do that. In between Hudson News, Sbarros, Starbucks and the TSA checkpoints that x-ray your sneakers…here is a place apart, a place of prayer and quiet, a place of consolation and renewal. All of us who travel need this.
There’s a hymn we sing often at deacon gatherings and ordinations, “The Servant Song.” It sums up the ministry of the deacon, but I think it also captures the mission of Our Lady of the Skies.
“We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road, we are here to help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.”
Thank you for the privilege of walking the mile with you.
I want to salute, too, the other honorees at this event: Woman of the Year Ana Lamos, Station Manager for Brussels Airlines; and Man of the Year James Groark, Airline Manager for Cathay Pacific Airways. It was moving to hear their stories of life in the airline industry, and how they, too, have reached out to “help each other walk the mile and bear the load.”
Our Lady of the Skies, pray for us!