The turn of the 20th Century found the quaint fishing village of Great Kills (formerly Gifford's-by-the Sea, Clearedon, Newton or Giffords) growing rapidly Schaneckberg's General Store and the Post Office were located in the Springstead Building. The smell of freshly baked pies from Hupfel's Bakery flowed down to the beach. As the village grew, so did the neighboring towns of Oakwood Heights and New Dorp Beach. On Sundays, Catholics would travel a great distance to Saint Patrick's Church in Richmondtown to attend Mass. Many parishioners took advantage of the stage coach service of Charles F.A. Startz Sr. to fulfill their Sunday obligation.
Toward the end of February, 1917, Father Charles J. Parks arrived at Saint Patrick's Church to assume pastoral duties. A native of Tompkinsville and a graduate of Saint Peter's Academy, New Brighton, he was a quiet, easy going man. Father had served as pastor of Saint Sylivia's Parish in Tivoli, New York for twelve years, where he was greatly revered by his parishioners. His great vision and foresight would lead to the founding of three Mission Churches - Our Lady of Lourdes, New Dorp Beach, Saint Charles, Oakwood Heights, and Saint Clare, Great Kills.
On July 7, 1918, a rented frame building at 105 Giffords Lane was established as the Mission of Saint Clare of Assisi. This temporary arrangement led to long-range plans for an established parish with a larger church. In 1919, property on Nelson Avenue was purchased for the sum of $2,000.00 in preparation for the laying of the cornerstone, the Mansfield House, adjacent to the property served as a repository for the church vessels. In May of 1920, the cornerstone for the new Mission Church was laid and construction began. It was the first Catholic Mission Church in the United States built in simple colonial style and its designers, Otto Eggers and Daniel P. Higgins, were cited in an article of the American Architect for their innovation. It was equipped with heat and electric lights at a cost of $15,985.00 and accommodated 250 people.
At a dedication ceremony on October 30, 1921, Archbishop Patrick Hayes formally blessed the new Church. Father Parks led a procession of altar boys, mounted police, and members of the Knights of Columbus and of the Holy Name Society to celebrate the event. This was followed by a High Mass sung by the Assistant Rector, Father Thomas McDonnell, and accompanied by Mrs. Phoebe Mansfield Colon on an organ donated to the Church by her family.
Religious instruction for the children began in 1922 with the arrival of the Presentation Sisters. The pioneers: Mother Vincent, Mother Dominic and Mother Aloysius, held classes every Wednesday at 3:15 P.M. and again after the 9:00 A.M. Mass on Sunday at the original property on Giffords Lane, which was to serve as a Parish Hall until the Fifties.
Father Parks oversaw the youthful stages of growth in Saint Clare until his death in October 1922. He was replaced as Pastor of Saint Patrick and Rector of Saint Clare by Father David C. O'Connor. Eventually Father O' Connor was to become the first pastor of Saint Clare when it became an independent parish on January 5, 1925. It is interesting to note here that from 1918 until 1925 Saint Clare remained a Mission of Saint Patrick's Parish. However, it was not until February, 1926 that Saint Patrick's Parish transferred to Saint Clare, for the sum of $1.00, the deed to the Church and all adjoining properties.
Father O'Connor found his tenure at Saint Clare exhilarated by the needs of the infant parish and the growth of Catholicism on Staten Island (30% of its residents by 1931). Under his direction the present rectory was built and property was acquired for the eventual construction of a school and convent. Father's spirit continued to galvanize the young parish for six years until he was called for pastoral duties at Saint Joseph's Parish in the Bronx.
In November of 1931, Father Daniel Dougherty, a classmate of Father O'Connor, became the new pastor of Saint Clare. Father Dougherty wasted no time in meeting the needs of the growing parish; almost immediately, parishioner Daniel P. Higgins was commissioned to design a school. Even the burden of the Great Depression wasn't enough to sway the parishioners' determination to see this dream fulfilled. On July 1, 1935 Monsignor Joseph Farrell, Dean of Catholic Clergy for Staten Island, blessed the school grounds and assisted Father Dougherty in removing the first shovelful of dirt. The cornerstone with the inscribed motto: "PRO DEO ET PATRIA" (For God and Country) was laid and construction began.
A little over a year later, on September 14, 1936, after a cost of approximately $175,000.00, Saint Clare School opened its doors. The main floor housed four classrooms and a gym auditorium (seating capacity 700) that doubles as a lunchroom: a statue of the Blessed Mother stood at the end of the hallway. The second floor contained four more classrooms as well as a Teacher's Lunchroom and Principal's Office. Mother Dominic served as the first Principal and the teaching staff consisted of Mother Aloysisus, Sisters Mary Clare, Mary Alacoque, and Mary Aquinas. The Sisters traveled to the school by bus every day from their residence at Mount Saint Michael's Home in Greenridge.
By the end of the 1930's, Saint Clare was providing a strong social medium for the community. The Parish Hall was being utilized by Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, Cheerleaders, the Saint Clare Catholic Club, and other parish sponsored groups for meetings and activities, while the school played host to CYO Basketball and a Weekly Games Party held on Monday nights. Other activities included the Annual Society Circus Bazaar and Carnival as well as the Annual Winter Dance.
Saint Clare's School recorded a milestone in the Spring of 1938 when a class of sixteen students became its first graduates. By the following year, the Senior Class had swelled to include 28 students.
In July of 1940, Father Dougherty took leave of absence for health reasons and was temporarily replaced by Father Joseph Tytheridge. Fortunately, he rebounded quickly and by October was back in the stream of progress created by the growing parish. With the help of Father Tytheridge (who stayed on as Assistant Pastor), Father organized a release time program that went into full swing in October of 1941. On Wednesdays, between 2:00 P.M. and 3:00 P.M. the Saint Clare students assembled in the school auditorium for a film, while religious instructions were conducted by the nuns.
The end of 1941 brought the Second World War and the reality of Air Raid Drills to the school. The sight of students sitting on the hall floors, heads tucked in their folded arms, I.D. tags visible, waiting for the "All Clear" sign was not unusual. In May of the following year, Father Dougherty blessed a service flag honoring parishioners serving in the armed forces. The flag contained one blue start for each man serving (75 in all) and one gold star for a Marine who had died. It was suspended from the choir loft for the duration of the war with changes made as needed.
The parish continued to grow as the Forties progressed. When Sister Mary John assumed her duties as Saint Clare's second Principal in 1943, all eight classrooms were in use. By May of 1944, time and the Pastorate had taken its toll on Father Dougherty's health and he was forced to turn over the reigns to Father Christopher B. McCann.
Father McCann hailed from Saint Joseph's Parish in New Paltz, and at one time had served as a Commissioned Navy Chaplain. Through his efforts and guidance, Kindergarten was instituted in September of 1945 and a uniform dress code found its way into student life. The Mother's Club was also founded in 1945 to raise funds for the school through social functions and to assist in its daily activities. Most important of all, it served to unite the mothers of the Parish to create a force of immeasurable impact.
Though ill for much of his reign as pastor, Father McCann had a strength and quality of leadership that served to unify the people of the parish. At a time when transportation conveniences weren't taken for granted, bringing parishioners distributed over such a large area together, was no simple task. Father McCann's pastorate was an inspiration to many who towed the line of growth and unity. When he left Saint Clare in November of 1948, it took the competence and spirit of Father William J. Farricker to continue his work.
The parish buzzed with activity during Father Farricker's pastorate. Growth came with post-war immigration and the "Baby Boom." Extra Sunday Masses were added and the classrooms filled up.
The school became a model of organization under the direction of Sister Mary John. Each morning, prayers were at 8:40 and classes, starting with Religion, began at 8:45. Art classes became a regular part of the curriculum and Miss Dillon came from Manhattan every week to teach Music. The responsibilities of the students went beyond their studies however; on Sunday mornings they reported to their classrooms at 8:45 for 9 o'clock Mass in the Auditorium. They also stayed after school to assist the Nuns in cleaning the rooms, while the fathers volunteered their time for repairs and maintenance.
Saint Clare was now a community as well as a Church and School. The Fathers' Club, founded in 1950, sponsored two plays, three dances, and two picnics every year to benefit the school's textbook supplies. They also organized a sports program that included Little League Baseball and a CYO Swim Team.
In September of 1951, Sister Mary Monica came from Our Lady Queen of Peace (New Dorp) to become the School's Third Principal. Sister Mary John had been called to the Bronx to serve as Principal of Our Lady of Grace.
In December, the Sisters sponsored Saint Clare's first Christmas Pageant. The auditorium provided the setting as it had for many other seasonal affairs such as: the Society Circus, Turkey Festival, Saint Patrick's Entertainment Night, and the Children's Christmas Party which was sponsored by the Mother's Club with Penny Sale proceeds.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, donated by parishioners, was blessed and dedicated by Father Farricker in 1953. The ceremony included procession of students that placed flowers at the Shrine and a crown of golden roses on Mary's head.
Father Farricker's tenure at Saint Clare had come to a close by 1954. In May he was called to assume Pastoral duties in Manhattan and was succeeded by Monsignor (then Father) John J. Flanagan, a hard working man who had once served as Chaplain of the Yonkers Police Department.
During the mid-Fifties, Great Kills grew at an extraordinary rate. New homes sprung up all over the Parish, additional Masses were added, and the classes swelled with over fifty students each. The time had come to move ahead on expanding the Parish facilities; Monsignor Flanagan's drive and enthusiasm was all that was needed to start the ambitious program. In February, 1956, the Mansfield House and property, adjacent to the church, was purchased to serve as the site for the new church. A major fundraising campaign began. Three hundred parishioners worked tirelessly from April 22 to June 14, 1957, surpassing the minimum goal of $225,000.00, and initiating the largest building project ever undertaken by a Staten Island Parish. It was at this critical time that an additional blessing came to the Parish with the arrival of Father Eugene Hicks as its new Assistant Pastor.
Preparations involved relocating classes to make way for the new school wing as well as moving the Church to allow space for the new Church's foundation. Although there had been plans to donate the original Church to Our Lady Star of the Sea in Huguenot, the final decision was that it remain at Saint Clare as a Chapel. Parishioners helped move the Chapel a few hundred feet down Nelson Avenue to the site where it stands today.
On October 25, 1958, the Most Reverend Joseph F. Flannell D.D. (Auxiliary Bishop of New York) presided over the new Church's Cornerstone Dedication Ceremony. Despite a steady downpour, the spirits of the parishioners that gathered remained exuberant and undampened. A metal box containing Church organizations' and School staff rosters along with pictures of the Chapel, Pope Pius XII, and Francis Cardinal Spellman was placed in the cornerstone and construction commenced.
Work progressed quickly on both buildings, and by the following September the School addition was ready for students. The three story annex, faced in brick and limestone, housed ten classrooms and a fully equipped cafeteria. Finally, it seemed, there was enough space to accommodate the student body.
The church, which at this time had been undergoing its final stages of construction, was completed by the end of the year. In such a very short time it had grown from an idea to a structure of imposing beauty through the leadership of Monsignor Flanagan and the perseverance and generosity of the parishioners. Its octagonal shape allowed it the luxury of seating 700 people, and it also had the distinction of being the first Church on Staten Island with central air-conditioning. On Christmas Eve, 1959, the parishioners gathered for Midnight Mass to celebrate the birth of Christ and the birth of their new Church. They stood proud and thankful to God for giving them the means to fulfill a task of such magnitude.
The Church and School were officially blessed and dedicated on May 22, 1960 by Francis Cardinal Spellman. The ceremony was followed by a Solemn High Mass that was offered by Monsignor Flanagan. In a profound and memorable sermon, he called the day an auspicious one of joy and important significance. He stated that the completion of such an immense project and the inauguration of its services was a source of pardonable pride and gratification to the priests, teachers and parishioners whose sacrifices made it possible. It was day of celebration for Saint Clare, but there was still work to be done.
In November of 1961, Saint Clare purchased a house and property on Lindenwood Road for the Sisters, who had been commuting every day since 1936. Monsignor Flanagan hired Kenneth Milnes to plan the conversion of the house into a sixteen room convent. By autumn of 1963 construction was complete. The Chamber of Commerce bestowed an architectural award on the new Convent soon after, proclaiming it one of the best new buildings on Staten Island.
In a ceremony the following April, Most Reverend Joseph M. Pericone (Auxiliary Bishop of New York) blessed and dedicated the new convent. He congratulated Monsignor Flanagan for completing such a large building program and for so formidably growing with a parish that had tripled in size since his arrival (at this time the school had twelve nuns, six lay teachers, over one thousand students, and eight hundred release time students). Monsignor Flanagan praised the dedicated Sisters and their new home, which would allow them greater accessibility to students and parents.
Sister Mary Monica left Saint Clare in June of 1964 to assume her duties as principal of Countess Moore High School, now known as Moore Catholic. She was replaced by Sister Mary Assisium who had previously taught at Saint Paul's School in New Brighton.
The challenges of the Sixties were met head on; the expansion program initiated by Monsignor Flanagan enabled the parish to accommodate the community's growth. Monsignor oversaw the integration of the students (boys and girls had been placed separately in the old and new parts of the school for years) in 1965 and by dutifully managing and effectively delegating his pastoral duties, he watched the results perform like a well oiled machine.
Towards the end of the Sixties however, Monsignor Flanagan's health began to fail. While he was still quite capable of running the parish, it was clearly taking its toll on him. Monsignor died on September 2, 1973. On September 6, Terrence Cardinal Cooke officiated at a Mass of the Resurrection.
During the last week of October, 1973, Saint Clare welcomed Monsignor John P. Keogh as its new pastor. Monsignor Keogh came from Saint Boniface ( parish he'd established in Monsey, New York) with a wit and personality that quickly endeared him to the Parish.
With the same foresight and energy that seemed, by now, to be requisite for the Saint Clare Pastorate, Monsignor rolled up his sleeves and got to work. In a short time, events like Irish Night, the Italian Festival, and the Polish Festival became annual affairs. He helped establish Pre-School, Bingo, the Varsity Club, Girls Basketball, Soccer, Track, and many other social and athletic groups that enticed many parishioners into getting involved. He saw the want and provided the means. In no time at all there was something for almost everyone to get involved in.
Monsignor saw both potential and need in Saint Clare. It was this visionary gift that initiated a campaign in November of 1976 for a Parish Center, a sports and social facility for the entire Parish. Once again the Parish banded together to help make a dream materialize; this time $800,000 was raised. Construction was completed within two years and in June, 1979, Terence Cardinal Cooke dedicated the Center that bears his name.
The Center is equipped with basketball courts, locker facilities, conference rooms and offices. Outside stands a contemporary statue of Saint Clare, sculptured by parishioner Hans Karl, the largest replica of Saint Clare in the Western Hemisphere. Today, the Center is used for everything from Pre-School to Track.
Over the course of Monsignor Keogh's Pastorate it was not unusual to see him in the school stopping to talk to the students or in front of the Church before and after Mass with his hand out to greet everyone. His gentle manner and dedication to his congregation made him beloved by young and old alike.
Monsignor Keogh's leadership continued until he was named Pastor Emeritus during the summer of 1985. He was succeeded by Monsignor Joseph P. Murphy, the seventh and present pastor of Saint Clare.
Presently we're celebrating the Eightieth Anniversary of Saint Clare Parish and the Seventieth Anniversary of Saint Clare School. While it's important for us to be aware of the collection of milestones that have brought us to this day, proper justice to such an auspicious occasion requires much more than a narrative of events. It requires recognition of more than the age of a school or parish. It requires the acknowledgment that what we celebrate is what we have accomplished through our commitment to God and each other. It requires a sincere appreciation of the heart, inspired by God's blessing, that has been the life of Saint Clare since the beginning.