Melrose landmark has welcomed immigrants for over a century
Chants of “Hallelujah, Hallelujah,” echoed through the ornate gothic chapel at the heart of Immaculate Conception Church on East 150th St. in Melrose.
Unofficially ordained “The Cathedral of the Bronx” by congregation members, the Roman Catholic church celebrated 125 years of community service on Nov. 11. Over 250 people of many colors, ages and backgrounds gathered in the church on an unusually warm Sunday afternoon.
“The faces have changed, but the spirit is still alive,” said Father Francis Skelly to the overflowing crowd, some of whom hadn’t returned to the church in decades. “The spirit that says, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ ”
The event was the culmination of weeks of preparation as volunteers scrubbed floors, dusted Saints and gathered recipes for the big day. Many volunteers felt it was their duty to give back to a church that has done so much for the community.
“There’s a sense of family and good priests,” said Milagros Lopez, 83, as she hugged Father Skelly, who helped translate her Spanish.
The majority of older congregants were Irish and German, and the younger generation was mostly Latino, all dressed in their Sunday best.
“The church is wonderful at bringing in immigrants,” said Patrick Osagie, a Nigerian immigrant. “We are all one.”
Despite the changing demographics, the familial attitude has been a constant since the formation of the parish. The church was originally built to cater to the majority German population of Melrose. As time progressed, troves of different ethnicities found salvation in its pews.
“It’s always been a parish of immigrants,” said Father Skelly, who led the mass in both Spanish and English.
The Germans took over the parish in 1887, tore down the wooden church and built the brick and mortar structure that’s there today. German artisan work adorns the church walls, from the imported stained glass windows to the handmade Stations of the Cross.
The Germans also brought in the first bilingual mass – in German and English – to accommodate the Irish minority. The first Spanish mass was held in 1958, at the height of Puerto Rican migration to New York, and Immaculate Conception has helped empower the Latino community ever since.
The Institute for the Puerto Rican Elderly holds weekly classes focused on immigrant education and citizenship. The humble dozen or so students that attended the first meeting in the early nineties have grown to an enrollment of about 250 members. Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous hold weekly meetings within the church walls.
Immaculate Conception successfully fought to reopen the area firehouse in 1989. Over a decade later, when Squad 41 lost six men on 9/11, Father Skelly provided counsel.
“Father has given so much to us,” said Lt. Sean Genovese as he paused briefly from mopping the chapel floors. “We just want to give back to him.”
The non-profit Community Resource Center for the Developmentally Disabled has been housed on the fourth floor of the church since 1976. The fifth floor is the home of the Grace Institute, which offers GED and college-enrollment classes for women.
“The church is open, aware and plugged into the community,” said Marty Rogers, training director at the Community Resource center. “I don’t think the guy ever says no.”
The remaining floors are flooded with 500 students from Pre-K to 8th grade in Immaculate Conception School. For the anniversary, the school, now led by Sister Patrice Owens, welcomed back alumni from the 1940s to the present.
“It’s very emotional,” said Kenneth Dobbins, class of ‘53, who reminisced with William Wagner, class of ‘56, about their childhood. “It brings back our youth.”
Father Skelly, 66, grew up on Brook Avenue to first generation Irish immigrant parents. But he didn’t want to dwell on nostalgia for the past.
“We’ve come from a land of what used to be, but we have to make sure we’re in the land of today,” he said. “This is the place to go when you feel lost. When you are looking for comfort, solace, this church, this building has offered it for 125 years.”