St. Helena's Church (Bronx, New York)
|The Church of St. Helena|
|Town or city||Unionport, Bronx, New York City|
|Country||United States of America|
|Client||Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||Eggers & Higgins|
The Church of St. Helena is a Roman Catholic parish church under the authority of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, located at the intersection of Olmstead Avenue and Benedict Avenue, Bronx, New York City, in the Unionport neighborhood. It was established in 1940, and the church building was built in the same year and was designed by the prominent architectural firm of Eggers & Higgins.
In May 1940, His Excellency the Most Rev. Francis J. Spellman, Archbishop of New York, announced the establishment of a new parish in the Bronx adjacent to a new massive development known as Parkchester. The parish was dedicated to St. Helena, the saint who found the true cross, and it would also serve as a permanent remembrance of the Cardinal's own mother, Helen Spellman. The parish replaced the beer garden of Loeffler's Picnic Park. The new parish's very first Mass took place on June 9, 1940. Mass was celebrated by Msgr. Arthur J. Scanlan, S.T.D. in the Loeffler building, and about 1,000 parishioners attended it. The Christmas Midnight Mass in 1940 was celebrated by Msgr. Scanlan in the newly constructed Loewe's American Movie Theatre.
St. Helena Elementary School began in September 1940 at Loeffler's Tavern, and 600 children were registered, taught by eleven Dominican Sisters of Sparkill. The first principal was Sr. Purissima Reilly, O.P.. The new school building opened in September 1941. Soon afterwards, some Marist Brothers joined the faculty. The parish purchased some land and soon opened two high schools, St. Helena's Girls’ High School and St. Helena's Boys’ High School, both of which later merged to become the co-ed Msgr. Scanlan High School. In September 1957, the parish opened a two-year business school, which became known as St. Helena Commercial High School.
The joyful spirit of St. Helena's flourished in fervent worship, bustling bazaars, parades, shows, a parish band, basketball games, parish dances, the annual New Year's Gala Celebration, movie night, and roller skating. The parish Glee Club was founded by Fr. Owen McEnaney, who wrote many original songs and lyrics. Msgr. Scanlan often said: “It’s fun to be good, and it’s good to have fun.”
The second pastor, Msgr. John Voight eased the parish through the mandates of the Second Vatican Council. He was a man of great accomplishments and distinctions. He was a leader for many years in the field of Catholic education, Superintendent of Schools, and Secretary of Education. He began many programs at the parish, such as Leisure Club, Parish Council, and Project HAND, which is the largest senior citizen center in the city, starting as a little store-front on Winchester Avenue. In a homily for All Saints Day, he wrote: "The danger today is that we get so bombarded with bad news, so bogged down in things that are wrong, that we forget the things that are right. The tragedy is for you and me to stop believing in ourselves and in our fellow human beings. If any of us are here today, it is because there are some people who had faith in us, back there; somewhere, sometime, somebody believed in us and believed in life and taught us to do the same. As we are constantly confronted with the raw and ragged edges of human nature, the outlook is often dark and discouraging. The need of the hour is for people who can believe and work for the best things in the worst times. Jesus did that. The Apostles did that. Let us do the same."
The third pastor, Msgr. Philip Mulcahy was a poet who instilled within the parish a tremendous love for Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and the Eucharist. He introduced many new activities and organizations. Over the years, the demographics of the area began changing, and the area became more multicultural. A Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe was built where a venerable old oak tree once stood in the parking lot. The first Multicultural Mass was held in 1994 and has become an annual tradition. The elementary school began a program for three-year-olds in 1996, and this year the elementary school will open a special Universal Pre-School program. The Sparkill Dominican presence has gradually declined, and the last Sparkill Dominican Sr. Margaret Mary Rankin, O.P. departed in 2001. In 2014, a new religious community, the Piarist Fathers, began ministering at St. Helena's, and the former convent became a seminary for young Piarists studying theology at St. Joseph's Seminary.