Father Jim performs first communion at Saint Mary Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway.
By Damian Ghigliotty, Clark Merrefield and Mathew Warren
Before Father James K. Cunningham relocated to Far Rockaway in 2001 he barely spoke Spanish and had served a predominantly white congregation in his six years of priesthood. Now the 39-year-old pastor, known as Father Jim, leads a multi-ethnic parish at Saint Mary Star of the Sea with a growing number of families from South and Central America and the Caribbean.
And as a leader among Catholic immigrants he now performs his services in Spanish as well as English.
“When they first sent me here I thought they made a mistake,” Cunningham said with a laugh as he sat inside the 88-year-old rectory. “You usually had to be 25 years a priest and I was only six years ordained at the time. But I guess they figured I could adapt – that adaptability was one of my strengths.”
Saint Mary embodies the sea of cultural and economic changes that have occurred on the Queens Peninsula since the early 1970s. As the bulk of second- and third-generation Irish, Germans and Italians packed up and left over the past four decades, a growing number of Hispanics and Caribbean Islanders have made Far Rockaway their home.
Today, the most recent immigrant groups – including Guatemalans, Mexicans and Guyanese – make up more than 70 percent of the 1,400-member congregation.
During a recent Mass, as Cunningham alternated between English and Spanish, more than a dozen children lined up to receive their First Holy Communion. Flags representing 37 different countries lined the inside of the church.
“The parish has had two or three turnovers since I’ve been a member,” said Josephine Kelly, 81, who moved to Far Rockaway from Buffalo in 1964. “Each turnover has caused a bit of an exodus among older members.”
And as those new members came in, so did new customs: from clapping and cheering to outward displays of affection among families.
“Back when it was predominantly white and European families the most you would hear was an occasional whisper,” Kelly added. “Now during services people tend to be a lot more expressive. You’ll often see a son put his arm around his father without giving it a second thought.”
While those changes have helped redefine the church’s inner-culture and the way in which the priests perform their sermons, they have also impacted on the parish’s finances. New groups appeared, but old money faded.
“Far Rockaway has faced the classic phenomena,” said Joseph Barden, executive director of Margert Community Corp., a neighborhood preservation group dedicated to helping struggling homeowners in the area. “In the 1970s there was a lot of white flight followed by a high concentration of poverty and a growth in public housing. Those forces plus immigration drove the original people who used to live here out. The problem for the church has been that most of the new immigrants don’t have the same economic base.”
One of the most apparent cultural and economic shifts can be seen in the fall off of donations given to the church.
“A lot of the churches in South America and the Caribbean are supported by their governments,” Cunningham said. “In the United States, that’s not the case and people aren’t as accustomed to tithing. A lot of the new members put a few dollars in the basket a week and think that’s enough of a donation. As a result, it’s become hard to pay bills when our collection is good, but still not good enough.”
Raul Hernandez, a 33-year-old construction worker who came from Mexico with his wife and two children, is part of the newest wave of immigrants to join the church. While some of the congregation members see a link between their parish’s financial struggles and the growing proportion of immigrants, Hernandez links it to external forces.
“Today things are really difficult,” he said. “The economy is really bad. Before maybe I could give $10 a week, now it’s $5.”
Jason Fernandez, 7, was one of the first children in line to receive communion. After Mass, his mother, Maria, shed tears of joy while the rest of her family waited to take pictures with Cunningham.
“When I have, I give, and it’s from the heart,” she said. “Without the church and without God, I don’t think we could survive in this country.”