IRONDEQUOIT — When asked how they wanted to celebrate the final Sunday Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, parishioners planning the liturgy said they preferred not to have any special symbolism to mark the end of regularly scheduled liturgies at the church.
Rather, they requested to be able to celebrate Mass at the usual time — 9:30 a.m. — and to do it well, explained Basilian Father Norman Tanck, pastor of the new parish that comprises St. Thomas the Apostle and four other Irondequoit parishes.
To do so, choir members hailing from St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Salome led the nearly 1,000 attendees in hymns ranging from "Ave Maria" to "Be Not Afraid" as the church’s stained-glass windows cast brilliant shadows on the pews and walls.
After the Mass, a group of parishioners prayed the rosary in front of the tabernacle. Meanwhile, a family participated in a baptism, several parishioners took photographs of the church’s interior, and parishioners past and present gathered for a coffee hour.
The final Mass was the result of a recommendation from a planning committee to merge five Irondequoit churches into one, with Masses to be held at Christ the King, St. Cecilia and St. Margaret Mary worship sites, and the closure of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Salome.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark approved the committee’s recommendation to merge the five churches and subsequently named the merged parish Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. In addition to the final Sunday Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle, St. Salome celebrated its final Sunday Mass Sept. 26.
Parish leaders have said that for the time being, both St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Salome may still be used for funerals or other events. For instance, the adoration chapel in St. Thomas the Apostle’s parish center will maintain its regular 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. schedule, and parishioners will continue to pray the rosary each morning at 8:15 a.m. Monday through Friday and at 8:45 a.m. Saturday. The church’s youth group also will continue to meet on the campus.
The building’s future is still up in the air, though, as a group of St. Thomas the Apostle parishioners have appealed Bishop Clark’s consolidation decree.
"It’s a wonderful parish, and the people who live here feel it should stay open," said Mary Frances Englert of Irondequoit, who taught for 31 years at St. Thomas the Apostle School, including 17 years as a full-time teacher and the rest as a substitute teacher. The school closed in 1992.
"I’m hoping the appeals to Rome will keep it open," she added.
She said she believes the parish’s longtime and beloved pastor, Msgr. Richard K. Burns, who is buried on the church campus, would have hated to see the end of Masses at the church he loved.
"I think if he were still alive, we would still be open, and I think if he were still alive, the school would have never closed," Englert said.
Msgr. Burns set a warm and loving example for the children who attended the parish and school, she said. For example, the priest made a point of remembering students’ and teachers’ birthdays and congratulating them when he saw them. After shaking hands with him, each birthday celebrant would have a 50-cent piece in his or her palm.
Msgr. Burns also introduced students to Benediction on Friday afternoons.
"He was trying to give the children a sense of deep respect for the Blessed Sacrament," Englert said.
Ritaclare Streb, who attended the final Mass, said her experience at the school was transformational.
"One of the things I remember most about coming here was learning about love," said Streb, whose mother Monica Kommeth taught fourth grade at the school for several years.
During that time, the school occupied several floors in its building and the church was in the basement. Due to the limited space in the basement, the church often was at standing-room-only capacity, she said. Even when a larger church was built in 1965 with seating for more than 800 people, it often was at standing-room only at Easter and Christmas, she said.
Streb and two of her four siblings were married in this new church.
"It was a really active parish," she remarked. "We were really involved with each other, and there were a lot of activities going on throughout the year."
When asked what the parish means to her, Nancy Tellier, who lives across the street from the parish, said, "Tradition, warmth and togetherness."
"I hope they keep this building, and I hope it doesn’t leave the diocese," said Tellier, who has been a part of the parish for 54 years.
Like Tellier, Sam Giordano of Irondequoit said he hoped that the building would be put to good use. For seven years Giordano helped to clean the school, which his children attended.
"There are a lot of good people in this parish," he said. "A lot of the kids who graduated from this school did OK in life, from principals to nurses."
Kelly Coiro of Irondequoit said the church is unique just in its size and its community-oriented nature.
"You can take away our church, but not our faith," added her husband, Matt Coiro.
During the Mass, Father Tanck advised parishioners to take comfort from the Scripture readings of the day, which included Luke 21:5-19 in which Jesus foretells of the Jerusalem temple’s destruction. The priest said that the readings are examples of apocalyptic writing, which speaks of catastrophe and end times.
"Apocalyptic writing is in part prophetic, but it is also supportive and encouraging for people in times of distress, persecution and violence," Father Tanck said. "Apocalyptic writing wants us to see beyond the present and look into the future and trust that God is with us."
He noted that Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple was an unimaginable thing for the Jewish people, as was his statement that he would raise the temple again in three days.
"He tells them, as he tells us today in the time of our crisis and loss, not to worry, and he tells the disciples not to be preoccupied with the events around them," Father Tanck said. "He tells them that because of these events, they will be witnesses to God’s love around them."