Years ago people spoke of Suffolk County on New York’s Long Island as “the country.” They knew there were beaches on the north and south shores to visit in the summer, but not much in between, save for farms and occasional sleepy towns. With the end of World War II, however, the face of the county began to change. New houses sprang up. New businesses started. New communities developed. Old communities expanded. The reason was an influx of new people—usually, hard-working people who found a way to exchange the noise and dirt and confusion of the city for the peace and quiet and beauty of “the Island.”
But any growing community, new or old, has needs, and perhaps the most important are spiritual. So it was with Centereach. By the early 1950s the number of Catholic families was close to a thousand, and still increasing. These families were welcomed at St. Joseph’s Church in Ronkonkoma and St. Margaret of Scotland Church in Selden. Naturally enough, the people in the area wanted their own parish, their own house of worship. And so, on September 2, 1953, Mrs. William Groben, an area resident, wrote to Archbishop Thomas E. Molloy of the Brooklyn diocese, advising him of the needs of the Catholic faithful of Centereach.
Although he did not act immediately upon Mrs. Groben’s letter, Archbishop Molloy realized that something had to be done. In 1955, he sent Rev. Francis A. Fitzgerald to Centereach as its first pastor. In July, Fr. Fitzgerald, arriving with only $400 to start the new parish, rented a small summer bungalow on Wood Road. He offered his first Sunday Mass in Centereach on July 10, 1955. His temporary church was the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall, a quonset hut on Middle Country Road, where Sunday Masses would be offered until the present church was completed in 1958.
A week later, Fr. Fitzgerald celebrated the first baptism in the new parish, that of Patrick Joseph Hayes. (In those early days, parish baptisms and marriages were performed in St. Joseph’s Church in Ronkonkoma.) The first parish marriage occurred three years later, on May 4, 1958 when John Vogel of Centereach wed Charlotte Keene of Infant Jesus Parish in Port Jefferson.
A rented bungalow and a quonset hut were humble beginnings for the new parish. But there was ample promise for the future in the energy of Fr. Fitzgerald and the dedication of the parishioners, led by the first trustees, Philip Schmitt, John F. O’Neill, and Ernest Camerlingo. Indeed, the parish—with about a thousand families—was already sizable, so Fr. Fitzgerald moved quickly to find a site for a church. Shortly after arriving, he purchased property on Crown Acres Road, just off Middle Country Road. There was a development house near the property that he remodeled into a rectory. A small chapel built into the new rectory served as a place where the pastor could offer daily Masses.
As 1955 drew to a close, the Catholic families of Centereach had begun to see a dream come true: a parish of their very own. Fr. Fitzgerald named it Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary–the name of his parish in his homeland, Ireland. But the name was appropriate for another reason, too, for near the beginning of the decade—on November 1, 1950—Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption a doctrine of faith, thus crowning centuries of belief in this mystery.
As 1956 began—the first full year of the parish’s existence—one great task lay ahead: erecting a church building on the Crown Acres Road property. In that same year, Rev. Joseph A. Belfiore arrived to assist Fr. Fitzgerald with this and other tasks. On August 1st, the initial building campaign for the new church started. At that time, the architectural firm responsible for designing the structure released details of what it would look like: a building with a warm brick exterior and pitched roof with overhanging eaves ventilated by awning-type wood windows; an interior that was devotional and spacious, with single-span, laminated wooden arches supporting the nave roof; interior walls of colored masonry, a colorful vinyl tile floor, and a choir loft spacious enough to accommodate a complete parish choir. Flanked by carved wood side altars of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, the sanctuary would be wood-paneled to accentuate a beautiful marble high altar. (A beautiful painting of the Assumption was placed above this altar later. For a photo of that painting, as well as photos of various phases in the construction, click here.) A life-size wooden crucifix was to be mounted on the rear wall.
This, at least, was what the parish hoped the new church would look like. Whether and how soon that hope would come to fruition depended, on the success of the fundraising drive begun on August 1, 1956. The initial goal was $50,000. Within two weeks, a concerted effort produced $88,792, and funds continued to pour in. On May 19, 1957, before a large crowd of parishioners and well-wishers, a group of altar boys formed a procession at the parish house and marched to the site where the church would be built. There, Fr. Fitzgerald, with Fr. Belfiore at his side, lifted a hefty shovelful of earth to signify ground-breaking for the beautiful church that would rise on that spot.
A little over a month before, on April 6, 1957, the parish became part of a new diocese—the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which Pope Pius XII created by separating the parishes of Nassau and Suffolk Counties from the Diocese of Brooklyn. He named the Most Reverend Walter P. Kellenberg as Bishop of Rockville Centre. It is easy to imagine the joy of the parish when the new church, completed the following year, was dedicated on September 27, 1958 by Bishop Kellenberg. For many parishioners, that joy was doubled as the first Confirmation class of two hundred children received the sacrament of the Holy Spirit.
Erecting the church left the parish with a considerable debt, the kind that often takes many years to pay off. Yet the parish members took only seven years to do it. The festive, mortgage-burning ceremony took place on December 6, 1963. Fr. Belfiore held the document while Philip Schmitt, general chairman of the building fund campaign, struck the match that set it aflame as the officers of the societies and a delighted audience of parishioners looked on. It was a joyous occasion with but one somber note: Fr. Fitzgerald was not there to witness it. The previous August, he died while visiting his native Ireland. Undoubtedly, he went to his reward knowing that the debt would soon be liquidated. More important, he lived to see the result of his dedication, leadership and love of God—a beautiful new church that was the center of a vital, flourishing parish.
Upon Fr. Fitzgerald’s death, Fr. Belfiore served as administrator of the parish until the Spring of 1964, when Bishop Kellenberg appointed Rev. Gerard J. Sheridan as pastor. Raised in Patchogue, Fr. Sheridan studied for the priesthood at Cathedral Seminary in Brooklyn. After his ordination in 1935, he served for a short time in Belle Harbor, and then spent five years at St. Theresa’s Church in Brooklyn, followed by twenty years of service in St. Aidan’s Parish in Williston Park. At that point, Fr. Sheridan turned from parish priest to professor, when he went to Huntington Seminary to teach Spanish and pastoral theology.
Fr. Sheridan’s first assistant was Rev. John Serrano, from Barcelona, Spain. Over the years, Fr. Sheridan was fortunate to have had the assistance, not only of Fr. Serrano, but also of Rev. Rocco Gallitelli, Rev. Michael Hoban, Rev. Charles Staiger, Rev. John Gabriele, Rev. Charles Fink, Rev. Francis Sang, Rev. Francis Corrao and Rev. Hector Valenzuela. (For a list of all priests assigned to Assumption of the BVM parish, click here.)
Vatican II brought many changes to Church life, none being more far-reaching than the active inclusion of lay members in parish planning and ministry. In August of 1967, Fr. Sheridan, advised that parishes were to start parish councils, called for a parish census and consulted with the heads of all parish societies on how best to proceed in this new direction. Under the guidelines provided by the diocese, Fr. Sheridan simply could have appointed people to the council, but he chose otherwise, wanting the members of the parish to set up the council themselves in a fully participatory manner. Working with a steering committee comprised of various parish leaders, the first parish council began, represented by a good cross-section of the parish: a plumber, chiropractor, pharmacist, truck driver, banker, clerical workers, doctor’s receptionist and housewives. This initiative was perhaps the first such council in the diocese chosen by a democratic election.
Fr. Sheridan had a very important task to turn over to the new parish council: planning the construction of a Religious Education Center, called at that time, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD). The first classes were held in the rectory, and later—after the church was built—in the church basement. However, it soon became apparent that the parish needed a separate building, a Parish Center, for classes, other parish activities, and easing the crowded conditions at some of the Sunday Masses. Believe it or not, for many years, our parish’s large program was coordinated by Florence Talluto, a dedicated parish volunteer, who fulfilled this role until 1973.
John O’Malley Associates of Brooklyn, who designed the Church, was chosen to design the Parish Center. Plans called for a two-story building containing ten classrooms, kitchen, library, meeting rooms, and an all-purpose room. Ed Quinn was the chairman of the fundraising campaign for furnishing the Center. By the Spring of 1971, the impressive new Center was ready. Dedicated on May 25, 1971, with a Mass concelebrated by Fr. Sheridan and Bishop Kellenberg, two hundred fifty children received the Sacrament of Confirmation at the same celebration.
In 1975 the present rectory was opened providing more space for the five priests living there. The parish continued to grow with an increasing number of baptisms, communions, confirmations and weddings, showing the general youth of the parish, which by then numbered about 3,800 families. For a time, bingo (discontinued in 1994) was the parish’s primary fundraiser, as was true in parishes throughout the diocese. High school religion continued to thrive – a great success for its day. In 1983 Fr. Sheridan retired, but remained somewhat active in the parish until his death in September 1986. (For a list of all priests assigned to Assumption of the BVM parish, click here.)
In June 1983, the bishop assigned Rev. Joseph K. Curley as the third pastor for the parish. A former high school teacher, he continued what had been a strong adult education program, stressing the teaching of the Bible and Vatican II. In addition, Fr. Curley fostered the education of our children, working with Miriam Selig, who coordinated the parish’s elementary Religious Formation program from 1973 until her retirement in 2003. Admittedly not a singer of note, he provided for parish liturgical experiences by supporting our parish music ministers, Barbara Wandling, Diane Sherman, and Joan Barrett. In addition, his vision and guidance transformed an already strong high school instructional program into a Youth Ministry program under the almost twenty-five year leadership of Janet Arato. During this time, additional parish organizations and programs which greatly enhanced parish life emerged: Respect Life and Outreach, both guided by Florence Talluto, became an important part of the parish mission; Catholic War Veterans, the parish’s Baptism preparation program, RCIA, in-home pre-Cana to name a few. Sustained by his pastoral care and presence, already existing groups continued growing as they served parish needs, e.g., Boy Scouts, winning numerous best troop in the diocese awards, Rosary Altar Society, Catholic Daughters of America.
Within a few years of his pastorate. Fr. Curley realized that the Church needed a bit of a face-lift. Therefore, starting in 1987, he began a multi-year beautification process which included better lighting, installing richly paneled walls, new carpeting, removal of altar rails to allow more space and better access, and beautiful stained glass windows depicting various biblical scenes. (You can see these windows and a detailed explanation by clicking the link.) In 1996 this process was completed by placing a large cross behind the altar to “bookend” the large Resurrection window at the western end of the church, thus emphasizing the Pascal mystery–the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was also the year that Pope John Paul II honored Fr. Curley (and the parish) by conferring upon him the honorary title of Monsignor.
During this period (December, 1988), the diocese adjusted our parish boundaries by creating several new parishes to our south. The 800 or so families involved were given the opportunity to decide whether they wanted to be part of this new, parish-building venture. By the time the new churches were built, most of these families became part of the new parishes. Without realizing it at the time, this helped the parish by eliminating the need to expand the church and the religious formation program, an endeavor which the parish may not have been able to maintain in light of what was yet to come.
By the millennium, additional changes appeared on the horizon. Some had been predicted, some were unexpected. For example, Mass attendance and overall participation in parish life had been decreasing over the years, not just in the parish but throughout the diocese and the Church. A substantial decrease in clergy vocations further complicated the situation. In addition, in 2002, a tsunami beyond expectation pounded the Church as the priest sex sandals became public. Although Assumption parish had been spared, the entire parish felt the pain and distress that came from the ongoing revelations. Some stopped participating in parish life in order to give voice to their anger at the bishops, the abusing priests, the inadequate response by the institutional Church, and the perceived cover-up and lack of accountability by Church leaders.
The convergence of these and other forces, challenged Msgr. Curley and the parish to provide a prudent and pastoral response which would allow the parish to weather the storm of a clergy shortage, parishioner frustration and anger, and decreasing parish participation. In addition, the country’s economic climate had begun to change with many parishioners losing their jobs or experiencing a sharp decrease in income. It would be up to the next pastor, Fr. Chris Aridas, to help the parish move forward with less.
(FYI– The following priests served with Msgr. Curley during his twenty-eight years as pastor: Rev. Raymond Nugent, Rev. Peter Liu, Rev. Warren Gress, Rev. Barry Mercado, Rev. Andrew Nirrengarten, Rev. Al Rogers, Rev. Vincent Martega, Rev. Raymond Joseph, Rev. Larry Duncklee, Rev. William Shean, Rev. Paul Myas, Rev. Augustine Kemli, Rev. Charles Srion. When Msgr. Curley began in 1983, there were four priests assigned to the parish; by the time of his retirement in 2011, there was one. For a list of all priests assigned to Assumption of the BVM parish, click here.)
In June 2011, Bishop William Murphy assigned Fr. Chris Aridas as the fourth pastor for Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish, replacing Msgr. Curley, who had reached the mandatory retirement age. An avid reader (exceeded only by Msgr. Curley!) and prolific author, Fr. Chris completed his doctoral studies at Fordham University while he headed the Diocesan Office of Charismatic Renewal (1982-1992). He brings to Assumption parish eighteen years’ experience pastoring a neighboring parish.
Upon arriving, Fr. Chris encountered several major staff changes which had been planned well before his appointment: Florence Talluto, the long-time Business Manager and Outreach coordinator and Janet Arato, the parish’s highly respected Youth Minister were both retiring, thus cutting the parish’s pastoral staff resources substantially. In addition, Fr. Peter O’Rourke, who had been in residence for several years at the parish as he worked at SUNY Veterans Home, announced his plans to relocate to Hauppauge. In 2011, Fr. Charlie was assigned to another parish (he eventually retired in 2018) and Fr. Joseph Alenchery joined the parish team.
A great deal of activity, renewal and construction began at this time. The Religious Education Center, erected by Fr. Sheridan (initially meant as a Catholic School, but used only for Religious Education classes), was redesigned and updated to include all the parish offices, meeting spaces, and conference rooms. This included offices for various parish ministries as well as offices for the priests assigned to the parish. In addition, an extension was placed on the building so an elevator could be included in the center’s design. Renamed “Msgr. Joseph K. Curley Parish Center,” the redesigned area now operates as a true center for parish activity.
In 2016 it became evident that a substantial number of capital improvements were necessary for the ongoing maintenance and use of the parish facilities. A capital campaign, therefore, was initiated to accomplish the major improvements necessary: replace the church’s parking lot, improve outside lighting, replace the church roof, repair outside windows, improve church’s interior lighting, refinish and repair church pews, carpet and altar appointments, freshen the church’s interior with a more vibrant paint palette, and upgrade the church’s AV system. Happily, after just two years, many of these tasks have been accomplished. (We’re still working on the parking lot, outside lighting, and AV system!)
Today, inspired by an exciting history and rich tradition, supported by the dedicated clergy assigned to the parish, a talented Religious Formation staff, as well as the parish volunteers willing to serve as needed, Fr. Chris continues to shepherd the parish toward the task at hand– to continue the parish’s mission to be “a welcoming community sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ through faith, prayer and the sacraments.”