ROCHESTER — On a humid July day, a handful of men slowly mounted a black marble plaque onto a huge rectangular stone in Sebastian Park.
The plaque bore the visage of the man for whom the park was named — Father Sebastian Contegiacomo, CPpS, an Italian immigrant priest who served as pastor of Most Precious Blood Parish from 1937-69. The priest died in 1982.
On either side of the rectangular stone stood a concrete seating wall. Behind the stone was planted six arborvitae, or small trees, representing the late pastor’s six decades of priestly service. The overall visual effect of the monument, if seen from the air, is that of a chalice.
Most Precious Blood sits next to the park, and the men mounting the plaque recalled Father Contegiacomo with fond memories. One of the them recalled the pastor walking the neighborhood regularly, encouraging residents to come to church.
Annette DeCarolis, a member of the parish for 50 years, said the priest was known for wearing his shoes until there were holes in the soles.
“He was a strict but loving guy,” said Tony Bellavia, a lector at Most Precious Blood. However, he wasn’t sure what Father Sebastian — as everyone called him — would have thought of being honored with the fancy plaque.
“He was a humble guy,” Bellavia said.
The priest’s new memorial was dedicated on July 24, during Most Precious Blood’s St. Anne Feast and Festival. The feast is one of several parish events this year marking the parish’s 75th-anniversary celebration. The erection of a memorial to Father Sebastian is long overdue, according to Father Gary Tyman, recent pastor of Most Precious Blood.
“We thought it was time to have a more substantial memory of Father Sebastian,” he said.
Father Tyman added that dozens of people, as well as a number of local businesses, supported the project with donations of materials, time and money to make the memorial a reality. He said that he was impressed by the outpouring of effort considering Father Sebastian died more than 20 years ago.
“You still have parishioners coming out and doing this for him — that tells you something,” Father Tyman said.
The late pastor’s visage now stands as a silent sentinel at Sebastian Park, which boasts a playground, soccer and baseball fields, and tennis courts. Not too long ago, the park was known for less inviting features — illicit drug use and dealing, muggings, overgrown brush, trash and a derelict restroom facility, parishioners said.
“Teens could hang out there and get into trouble,” Father Tyman said.
However, over the past three years, parishioners and neighbors have volunteered to work with city and neighborhood officials to rehabilitate the park, Father Tyman said. Volunteers have spent more than 1,000 hours cleaning the park, according to information from Interfaith Action, a federation of churches and other groups, including several Catholic parishes. Interfaith also noted that New York state and Monroe County politicians have participated in the project as well as neighborhood-group leaders. Interfaith has been spearheading an initiative called Raise A Roof! aimed at revitalizing the city’s west side, and the Sebastian Park project is part of that initiative, the federation said.
Rehabilitation of the park has involved the cooperation of such people as students at nearby Edison Technical Occupation Center, according to Ian Nadar, city forester with the Parks and Recreation Department. Nadar said the students have assisted his employees with clearing debris and removing dead and undesirable trees. Nadar said the park clean up has helped to decrease crime in the area because “bad elements” stay away from parks that look like they’re being used.
“Now that whole area is coming alive and having a new image,” he said of the neighborhood. He added that a clean, well-maintained park can attract new residents to a neighborhood. “It becomes very desirable to live in, especially for families with small children,” he said.
Local architect Joseph W. Moroz created the architectural drawings for the chalice-like monument, based on an idea first offered by Jerry DeCarolis, son of Annette DeCarolis. Moroz noted that he graduated from both Most Precious Blood’s now-closed elementary school in 1989, as well as Edison in 1993. He said he was happy to see the parish and his high school cooperating on the park project, and added that the park can now be used by local children.
Sam LaPietra, a parishioner for 40 years, said that he felt Father Sebastian’s spirit guided the project. Pointing to the sky, he noted that the weather always seemed to cooperate when the volunteers needed to get work done.
“Father Sebastian is helping us,” he said.