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Over 123 years of serving the people of God in Coney Island

Numerous accomplishments were achieved over the six years of Fr. Shiju’s tenure as pastor. There was a growing outreach of evangelization, a new bourgeoning youth ministry with its own director that included retreats and social events, and a growing energy in faith through special events such as the live Outdoor Passion of the Lord on Good Friday, the International Rosary during the last week of October, and the bilingual Celebration of the Divine Mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday. The refurbishing of the church didn’t just end with the rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy, but continued on with new interior doors for the lobby, front hallway and Adoration Chapel, a complete restoration of the tower’s illuminated cross, continuation of work on the classic roof, restoration of the stained glass windows, rebuilding of the Holy Family Memorial Garden, the addition of a Tepeyac shrine along Mermaid Avenue depicting the appearance of the Virgin Mary to St. Juan Diego, re-paving of the main parking lot and a completely refurbished West 17th Street main entrance with a new relief above the center doors. During the summer of 2020 after 95 years of hot and humid summers, air conditioning was finally installed.

In 2018, popular parochial vicar Fr. Michael Onyekwere was transferred to St. Clement, Pope parish in Jamaica, Queens to take over as pastor. St. Clement’s became the second Vocationist parish in New York City, following the great success of the Society of Divine Vocations at Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace. Taking his place as chaplain of the Saints Joachim and Anne Nursing facility is Rev. Patrick Nwachukwu, S.D.V., who, in 2019, also took the position of parochial vicar of Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace.

While 2020 appeared to be off to a great start, something was lurking all over the world to make it a year most people would rather forget when it ends. By the end of January, the dangerously contagious COVID-19 coronavirus was beginning to show the world that it was no ordinary wave of influenza and would shortly become a global pandemic. By mid-March, the United States was firmly in its grip with New York City as its epicenter. By the end of the month, the State and City of New York went into an unprecedented lockdown to stem the tide of infections and fatalities that increased at an alarming rate. With the exception of being open limited hours for personal prayer only, all churches were shut down with no services, funerals, weddings, or other public services permitted. All of this occurred during the last two weeks of Lent, Passiontide, and the entire season of Easter.

Coney Island itself was on its way to the most disastrous year in its history. For the first time ever, the City, on orders from unpopular mayor Bill DiBlasio, the amusement parks remained closed for the entire season, with all their rides stilled. It had been expected that, since the parks in Connecticut and New Jersey had opened halfway through the season with coronavirus restrictions, Coney Island would open as well and salvage, at least, part of its season. However, DiBlasio remained inflexible and aloof as the fallout from the season-long shutdown claimed many small business dependent on the summer business at the parks. A number of them not only left Coney Island, but New York State itself for good.

However, modern technology provided a way for churches to share their services with their parishioners by streaming them live over the internet and recording them for viewing them on YouTube, and Fr. Shiju was not about to let the parish’s mission grind to a halt. With the assistance of parish staff and parishioners, the Easter Triduum and Sunday Masses (both English and Spanish) were all live-streamed from the church with no congregation present. The music ministry also continued. A new system was set up where parishioners could donate online as well as mail their collection envelopes to, or drop them off at, the rectory. Finally, at beginning of July, public Masses and the Sacraments resumed with restrictions such as limits on attendance relative to a church’s total seating capacity, social distancing of six feet between persons, Communion under the species of bread only in the hand, no handing out and sharing worship aids and hymnals, wearing of face masks, and hand disinfectant relatively available at all points of entry.

The beginning of August finally saw air conditioning arrive at Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace at last. Unfortunately, Fr. Shiju would not be able to enjoy it for long. Before anyone realized it, his term as pastor of Our Lady of Solace was nearing its end. He had been with the parish eight years, the first two as parochial vicar and parish administrator, and the last six as pastor. In keeping with most religious orders, a Vocationist pastor may only serve one six-year term in one particular parish. A stunned parish could not believe it was going to lose its beloved pastor so soon, one who lead the parish through some of its best and worst times and had accomplished so much. On September 1st of 2020, Fr. Shiju left for Florham Park, New Jersey to head the Vocationary, the American home of the Society of Divine Vocations.

Neither the Vocationist order nor the Diocese of Brooklyn had to look far for a replacement. Fr. Javier Flores, S.D.V., had been very popular and active as the parish’s parochial vicar and especially its large multicultural Spanish-speaking population. Being familiar with the parish and its neighborhood, it was only fitting, then, that he should return to Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace as the new parish administrator, the first step before being officially appointed pastor of the parish. One of his first accomplishments was to bring back a Saturday evening vigil Mass since the poorly-attended 5:00 PM Saturday Mass in English was discontinued over a decade earlier for almost nonexistent attendance. This time, however, the Mass would be in Spanish and take place at 7:30 PM, for many in Coney Island a much better time than 5:00 PM. All of the nearby churches in mainly residential areas had Masses a 5:00 or 5:30 PM in English, but none with a Spanish Mass in the late evening. Originally the Mass had taken place at 5:00 PM on Sundays as a way of accommodating those who had to be turned away from the 11:00 AM Spanish Mass due to coronavirus attendance restrictions.

Less than two weeks after Fr. Javier started his duties as parish administrator, the Tepeyac Shrine was attacked and vandalized the morning of September 11th, 2020, the nineteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A mentally-disturbed man climbed to the top of the monument, tore the heavy image of Our Lady of Guadalupe from its place and threw it out onto the sidewalk, destroying it. Fr. Javier and the parish trustees organized a fundraising drive to replace the precious image and the response was truly amazing! Over $16,000 was raised, $10,000 of it from the Knights of Columbus, who had been so instrumental in helping the parish get back on its feet after the Sandy disaster. The new image was installed and dedicated on Saturday, September 12th, 2020, which is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In keeping with a tradition of the parish since its first Mass was celebrated on November 3rd, 1900 in a former dance hall with park bench pews, a Crucifix and candles from parishioners’ homes, and a broken refrigerator turned on its side to serve as the altar topped with a tablecloth, the morning Mass on the First Saturday of each month continues to be offered for the souls still suffering in Purgatory.

And, as with all things, the story of Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace continues…

Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace History: Part 9 And the Story Continues… The Tepeyac Shrine  with its working waterfall The rebuilt Holy Family Memorial Garden in the arcade Refurbished rear gallery  and confessionals One of the restored stained glass tablet windows Coat of Arms of Pope Pius X, who consecrated Our Lady of Solace Church as a Roman Shrine. Refurbished main entrance including restored facade Restored tower cross