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Over 120 years of serving the people of God in Coney Island Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace History: Part 1 It All Started with an Abandoned Beer and Dance Hall

One Sunday in 1900, thousands of miles away from San Valentino, Torio, Italy, some people from Coney Island had heard a sermon about faith being “…as the grain of a mustard seed.” On the way home from St. Finbar’s Roman Catholic Church one of the party called out, “If our faith is loyal, behold our church already built!” As he spoke, he rubbed off a dirty pane of glass to show the interior of a disused dance and beer hall, once known as the “Palm Garden,” the home of a thousand spiders and sparrows.

Early in the summer, a priest on the Italian missions in Brooklyn sent a little brass medal of Our Lady of Solace from San Valentino, Torio, Italy, to the household of the man who had spotted the possible site and had made a petition for a chapel.

Months passed and the committee continued its work. Once, a group of Italian children was sent to Bishop Charles Edward McDonnell’s residence with a bouquet of flowers and this message. “To our dear Father, the Bishop, begging him not to forget his Coney Island children.” Then, in October 1900, the long-awaited priest arrived: Brooklyn-born Rev. Joseph Francis Brophy, D.D., who was later nicknamed “The Apostle of Coney Island.”

When Doctor Brophy (he preferred to sign documents with his educational title of “Doctor” as opposed to the ecclesiastical title of “Father”) was shown the dance hall he hastened to get permission to adapt it to its new uses. An army of small boys dislodged the tenant spiders and sparrows. Everything was then washed down. Benches from a nearby park were set in order to be used as pews. Two saloon screens marked off the sacristy. The confessional was a nightmare. It was made of reversed billboards and on the “wrong side” depicted astonishing feats of jugglers and told of the desirable qualities of a certain brand of beer. An discarded refrigerator was turned on its side to serve as a temporary altar. The Altar Society brought linens, candles and vestments for the celebration of Mass. On November 4, 1900 on the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo, the first Mass of Our Lady of Solace Parish was celebrated in the newly decorated former dance hall.

The old, abandoned Palm Garden had become the first church of Our Lady of Solace in Coney Island. However, in the spring of 1901, it became obvious that a more suitable and a centralized location for the church was necessary. Dr. Brophy realized that God’s work had to take in the crowds that surged to Coney Island from every tribe and nation or the church and parish would fail. He envisioned the growth of a work that would make Coney Island the place of national pilgrimage for the souls in Purgatory, for whose comfort Our Lady bears the “solace.” He selected some lots on 17th Street on the corner of Mermaid Avenue which provided a direct route to the city. Unfortunately, the lots were not for sale.  Not one to be intimidated by obstacles, Dr. Brophy prayed. Shortly thereafter, a lady donated to him one of the lots, and by May of 1901, twenty-six lots in all belonged to Our Lady of Solace Parish. With the land finally acquired, the problem then was how to move the church building. It was lifted off its foundation and mounted on rollers. Unfortunately, as it was being transported from the Nassau Depot to its new location on Mermaid Avenue, it got stuck halfway through the route!  As it was unable to reach its planned destination, the church was put down at a temporary location on Railroad Avenue.  It was eventually transported to the site of the present church building on the parish campus. The church building was formally dedicated by Bishop McDonnell on August 31, 1902.

On the day of the re-opening of Our Lady of Solace Church, a great wind had caused the Flip-Flop Railway, which was Coney Island’s first “Loop-the-Loop” ride, to collapse. The timbers were saved by Steeplechase Park founder and owner George C. Tilyou for Dr. Brophy, who used them to erect a small tower and belfry. This housed the fire bell that originally rang from the tower of the first Steeplechase Park. On the bell were engraved the following words:

 

WE LIVE FOR THOSE WHO LOVE US

FOR THOSE WHOSE HEARTS ARE TRUE

FOR THE GOD THAT REIGNS ABOVE US

AND THE GOOD THAT WE MAY DO.


Our Lady of Solace Church had indeed grown strong since its humble beginnings. Bishop McDonnell, seeing that the people of Coney Island were in earnest, presented the little church with a piece of baked stonework, which was a copy of the statue of Our Lady of Consolation in San Valentino.  It is a group of six figures which form an allegorical picture; angels are represented beside our Lady and her Son, breaking the chains of the captive souls in Purgatory.



CONTINUE ON TO PART 2.


wp4765574b.jpg A handwritten baptismal certificate signed and sealed by Dr. Brophy. Rev. Thomas A. Sala was the assistant  pastor at this time and, years later,  as Monsignor Sala, longtime pastor of  St. John the Evangelist in Park Slope.  (photo from the OLS 1914 journal) The original 1916 rectory along Mermaid Avenue.  This is currently the site of the main parking lot. The roof  and spires of the imposing and majestic building was actually higher than that of the church.