By Tommy Coca
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN â€” Cathedrals, churches, chapels and other places of worship are often prime sites to view great architecture, paintings, sculpture and history. If budget allows, one can visit cities such as Rome or Florence and experience the greatest works created by the great masters such as Raphael, Botticelli and Giotto. However, if budget does not allow for a trip to Europe, one can see outstanding examples of religious art and architecture without leaving New York City.
In Manhattan, perhaps the best known is St. Patrickâ€™s on Fifth Avenue. What may not be as well recognized however is the exceptional Pieta housed in the cathedral and sculpted by William Ordway Partridge. Lesser known is the original St. Patrickâ€™s Cathedral on Mulberry Street, which serves a parish that dates back more than 200 years. We also have the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, which, although unfinished, is said to be the largest gothic cathedral in the world, and Holy Trinity Church on West 82nd Street, which contains a superb example of Gustavino tiles.
It is a term that is seldom used nowadays, but Brooklyn has been referred to as the Borough of Churches. Gorgeous buildings and artwork abound: St Barbaraâ€™s in Bushwick and St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights are prime examples of these magnificent edifices. But none, in my opinion, can rival the grandeur and magnificence of Regina Pacis Votive Shrine on 65th Street and 12th Avenue in Dyker Heights.
As the 20th century began, immigrants teemed onto the shores of America, and many from Italy made their homes in Brooklyn. In 1902, somewhere in the vicinity of 60th street and New Utrecht Avenue, these local Italians would gather in a tiny store to hear Mass. Two years later the bishop of Brooklyn instituted a new parish called St. Rosalia and appointed the Reverend Father Sapienza as its Pastor. A short time afterward, St. Rosaliaâ€™s Church was built on a vacant lot on 63rd Street and 14th Avenue.
With the death of Father Sapienza in 1913, the Reverend Locksley Appo assumed stewardship, and the tiny congregation continued to grow. A decade later a new pastor was appointed, and it was his vision, determination, and supervision that created the magnificent complex of buildings that serve the neighborhood to this day.
Father Angelo Rafael Cioffi was born in the small town of Cervinara in the Campania region of Italy. Before he was assigned to St. Rosalia, he served as pastor of a church in Patchogue, Long Island. After he took over the leadership duties of St. Rosalia in 1923, he immediately went to work with plans for expansive renovations and additions. In the following years a chapel was added beneath St. Rosaliaâ€™s and property was purchased on 12th Avenue and 65th Street where a rectory, St Theresaâ€™s Chapel, and a new school were built.
In 1938 Pope Pius XI bestowed Father Cioffi with the title of monsignor. The parish had grown over the years, and Msgr. Cioffi envisioned even greater expansion. As young men marched off to fight in World War II, the parishioners vowed to build a shrine to Our Lady if they were granted victory and the blessing of peace. A building fund was established that included plans for the shrine, a new convent, and enlargement of the school.
The monsignor was a gifted fundraiser, and to this day older parishioners still living in the area can recall his appeal at Mass for a â€śsilent collection.â€ť This did not mean that the faithful should not speak as the plate was being passed, but rather that they should maintain the quiet by depositing only bills rather than coins.
The war ended with the Allied forces victorious, and the time had come for fulfillment of the vow and construction of the shrine. More famous than the silent collections was the bequest of gold and jewels from the parishioners, which were used to make crowns for Mary and the Baby Jesus on the central painting behind the main altar.
On Oct. 3, 1948, ground was broken and later a beautiful statue of Mary, the Queen of Peace, was placed in its niche above the entrance to the shrine. Aug. 15, 1951, marked the Feast of the Assumption, and the parish saw the fruition of their vow as Archbishop Thomas Molloy dedicated their new house of worship â€” Regina Pacis Votive Shrine.
Theft and Return
Artistic embellishments and treasures abound in the shrine. Above is the 60â€™ by 27.5â€™ ornamental ceiling painting of Maryâ€™s Coronation in heaven as the Queen of Peace. The Holy Trinity appears in the clouds surrounded by angels and other heavenly figures. Below, on Earth, is a representation of the shrine, clergy and parishioners gazing upwards. Off to the right, one of the figures is clearly that of Msgr. Cioffi. Joseph P. Leuzzi, an octogenarian and retired attorney now residing in Ramsey, N.J., lived down the block from the shrine and served as an altar boy at St. Rosaliaâ€™s and Regina Pacis. The monsignor pointed out one of the altar boys in the painting and told the young boy that it was a painting of him.
The neighborhood in which Regina Pacis is located has been sometimes associated with organized crime. Joseph Columbo, of the crime family bearing his name, lived a short distance away on 84th Street. Prior to it being called the Columbo family it was known as the Profaci family, led by Joseph Profaci. Although he was the head of a criminal enterprise, Profaci was reputedly a very religious man. It is also reputed that his image is likewise represented in the celestial painting adorning the shrineâ€™s ceiling.
The jeweled crowns designed from the gifts of the faithful were installed on the painting behind the altar and positioned on the heads of Mary and the Baby Jesus. One morning in January 1952, as one of the parish priests entered the church, he discovered that the crowns had been stolen. Time Magazine reported the story and the event became national news. Prayers were offered, and pleas were made to the thieves for return of the precious objects. Eight days later an anonymous package was received at the rectory. The crowns were returned! A miracle some said. Others credited the Profaci organization for the safe return â€” as well as for the punishment of the thieves.
150-Foot Bell Tower
The jeweled crowns aside, an array of other items beautify the building. No less than 30 varieties of marble grace the Votive Shrine, including white Carrara from the quarries of Italy. The Stations of the Cross are of Venetian mosaics framed by red French marble. Of course, the shrine also contains many beautiful stained glass windows, paintings and statues.
Perhaps the most imposing feature of Regina Pacis is the 150-foot belfry modeled after the bell tower of Our Lady of Pompeii in Italy. Three bells sit in the tower: The 900-pound Ave Maria, the 1,500-pound Salve Regina and the 3,000-pound Regina Pacis. Monsignor Cioffi said of the bells, â€śThese bells are lovingly dedicated to our Blessed Mother ÂĽ each time they ring we shall be reminded of our two-fold duty to worship God in His House and to praise with them the glorious Mother of God and our loving Queen of Peace.â€ť
Cioffi further expanded the parish by raising additional funds and building a youth center in the 1960s. With the exception of a single residence, the entire block of 65th street between 12th and 13th avenues is comprised of parish buildings. Thanks to his leadership, and the faith and generosity of the parish, this outstanding shrine stands for the faithful to worship and for all to benefit from its artistic and architectural beauty.
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