Origin of the Title of Our Lady of Refuge
The Institute of Our Lady of Charity was founded (1641) by [St. Jean] Eudes, at Caen, Normandy, under the title of Our Lady of Refuge. Moved by pity for abandoned women living a life of sin, Père Eudes at first attempted to unite the penitent among them and place them under the care of good and zealous women, but he soon became convinced that the only way of dealing with them was to found a congregation of holy women, who would bind themselves by vow to work for the reformation of these unfortunate ones. Three Visitation nuns came to his aid temporarily, and, in 1644, a house was opened at Caen under the title of Our Lady of Charity. Other ladies joined them, and, in 1651, the Bishop of Bayeux gave the institute his approbation. In 1664 a Bull of approbation was obtained from Alexander VII. That same year a house was opened at Rennes, and the institute began to spread. When the French Revolution broke out there were seven communities of the order in France. From this parent-tree of Our Lady of Charity sprang the Order of the Good Shepherd . (
The Catholic Encyclopedia
A History of the Parish of Our Lady of Refuge
Cardinal Hayes decided that the growing Catholic population in the area needed another parish and OLR parish was carved out of the southern part of St. Philip Neri Parish and the nothern part of Our Lady of Mercy, encompassing the area from East 194th Street, north to E. 198th Street, from Webster to Jerome Avenues. Cardinal Hayes purchased 8 lots on 196th Street, Briggs and Bainbridge Avenues.
In June, Father John J. Fullam, pastor of St. John's Parish in Montecello was named the fouunding pastor of Our Lady of Refuge. That same month Fr. Fullam made arrangements for the Dominican SIsters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, to staff the school. At that time it was the custom to establish a school before the parish church. Two private houses on lots fronting Bainbridge Avenue were used for a rectory and a convent. Joe McGovern, a 7th grader at Our Lady of Mercy arrived to serve Mass there and was told to go to the new rectory at 196th and Bainbridge to serve the first Mass celebrated in the new parish.
Fullam immediately began the construction of a wooden fifty-by-one-hundred-foot building to house the school, church, and entertainment hall. The Parish Center now occupies this site. On August 15th, 1,500 people attended the Masses in the new building.On September 11th, the parish school opened in the same building with the classes meeting in the 4 corners of the building. Having the church and school occupying the same space was a challenge. Funerals and weddings led to a suspension of all teaching until they concluded. Every Thursday before the First Friday school had to be dismissed at noon to prepare for confessions and to prepare the room for Mass. Every Friday night all school materials had to be collected and stored under the stage on which the altar had to be placed.
Even before the first Sunday Mass on August 12th, the parishioners were active forming groups...an Ushers' Society, the Ladies' Altar Society, the Holy Name Society, the Young Ladies' Sodality. Groups were organized to raise funds and additional lots for a school were purchased were purchased on Briggs Ave.where the current school and church now stand. A three day bazaar was held from October 12th - 14th. It rained the first night and only 800 people braved the storm to attend the opening night dance in the new wooden building. By the last night the numbers reached 2,200.
There were pie eating contests, games of chance, and other activities. Fr. Fullam had grown up and attended St. James Grammar School in lower Manhattan with Governor Al Smith. This might explain how the parish was able to raffle off a ball signed by the entire 1923 Yankee team and donated by Babe Ruth himself. A similar ball depicted above was auctioned for $63,000.00 in 2005 by Sotheby's. 1923 was the year the Yankees played in the Stadium for the 1st time on April 19th when the Babe hit the first home run there with two men on base against the Boston Red Sox. It was also the year they won the world Series, defeating the Giants 4-2. The Yankees won 98 games and lost 54 that year for an average of .645. Babe Ruth batted .368 for the series and .393 for the regular season. On the Giants Casey Stengel batted .417 for the series and .337 for the regular season; Frankie Frisch batted .400 for the series and .348 for the regular season. These numbers are off the charts when compared with today's statistics. The parish netted almost $3,000.00 from the bazaar, $39,000.00 in 2007 money. The Trustees' 1923 Report for the parish's first six months showed the following:
Church Membership - 2,196
Baptisms - 16
Marriages - 4
Conversions - 2
-1924 Father Fullam realized a few days into the new year that the church-school wooden building was already too small. Professional fund-raisers were around even then. On January 3rd to Organization Finance Bureau in Manhattan for help in organizing a campaign for a new church/school. One week later he signed a formal contract. While this professional approach was in the works, Fr. Fullam went to work on his own "sales pitch", a booklet called "The Faith of the Founders." When Fr. Jenik came to OLR in 1978, there were still a few of these founders in the parish, proud of the role they played back in 1924. In the booklet, Fr. Fullam emphasized the importance and necessity of establishing more permanent roots for the growing Christian community.
On Sunday February 3rd, all the men of the parish were invited by Fr. Fullam to join a new organization - The Parish Founders' Society - whose purpose was "to devise ways and means of raising funds and to solicit the support and financial assitance of the Catholic residents of the upper Bronx."
The response was immediate and dramatic.Unbeknown to Fr. Fullam, Owen Tierney and J.W. Stacker organized several men who met on Saturday, Februaury 9th, and composed a letter that read: "A few men of the congregation, sensing the necessity of acting quickly, have taken upon themselves to organize for a Temporary Committee to devise ways and means whereby men of the parish might, at the earliest possible moment, come to assistance of our beloved pastor by pledging him our fullest endorsement and wholehearted support of the splendid plan of organizing the congregation into a 'Parish Founders' Society' which he so ably outlined to us on last Sunday."
It went on to explain that an anonymous member of the parish wished to finance a dinner that would serve as a testimonial to Fr. Fullam and a" vote of confidence" in his new plan. The dinner, attended by over 1,200 people, was held at the Concourse Plaza Hotel on Tuesday, February 19th; it served as an initiation of the Founders' Society and as a springboard for a zealously conducted building-fund campaign. Who was this anonymous donor who provided dinner for 1,200 - a small fortune in those days? The average skilled working man (bricklayer) earned $1.25 an hour and worked about 44 hours a week for a total of $55.00. That generous donor still remains anonymous.
At a Communion Breakfast sponsored by Fr. Fullam on Sunday, February 24th, the campaign workers set a goal of $75,000.00 ($902,398.31 today) and a time limit of two months, to begin the following week, March 2nd. Incredibly, by Thursday, March 12th, only 10 days later, pledge cards in the amount of $82,177.25 ($988,754.82 today) had come in. The final payments were due on Friday, June 6th, at which time almost all had been
paid in full. OLR currently has a hard time raising $19,800.00 ($1,600.00 back then) for the annual Cardinal's Appeal.
The people of OLR were simply following the footsteps of Fr. Fullam who had become known throughout the city as a “tireless worker.” His assistants, Fr. Valentine Snyder and Fr. William Connolly, praised his generosity in a letter to parishioners and stated that their “beloved pastor” had “practically no money personally,” but he was giving all that he had, and even had intended borrowing personal funds for a set of sanctuary windows for the new church. In fact, he was planning to make a donation of “more than half of his meager year’s salary” for the cause. He fulfilled his promise – the three windows above the main altar depicting scenes from the Passion and Crucifixion were paid for by him.
There were two headlines on the front page of the May 15th edition of the Harlem and Bronx Journal – BBRONX MAN HELD FOR MURDER OF BUSINESS PARTNER and THOUSANDS TO SEE GROUND BROKEN OR BIG CHURCH. Three days later on Sunday afternoon, May 18th 1924, over 5,000 people assembled for the groundbreaking. Fathers Fullam, Snyder, and Connolly; trustees James Donnelly and Charles McLaughlin, and representatives of a dozen parish societies were among the honored guests.
Two days later, on Tuesday evening, May 20th, another event contributed toward the building’s construction. The newly established Holy Name Society sponsored the first of many parish dances and minstrel shows (now politically incorrect and offensive). A minstrel show was held at the Hunts Point Palace to seek funds from outside the parish. Starring the “Pickaninny Minstrels” of the Cathedral Boys’ Club, directed by Fr. John M.J. Quinn, the program included a “Dixie Ballad” called Alabamy Blacksheep, a “Kid Specialty” – Deze, Doze and Dem, an “Oriental Rag” – Hi-H! Hi-Ho!, an “Italian speciality” – Hot Roasted Peanuts! And an “Irish American” selection – Wurra! Wurra! There is a copy of the original program at the rectory.
On September 21st, Cardinal Hayes dedicated the cornerstone, a little more than a year after the parishioners assembled for Mass in the wooden building on August 12th1923. The school opened for its second year in the same building and added a fifth and sixth grade. Three more nuns were added to the staff and due to a very high enrollment classes were held in the nuns’ parlor and dining room.
The Sisters’ annals reported: “In September, 1925, when the (new) school opened, the student body trooped into a new school building hardly ready for occupancy. Doors were not hung, floors unfinished, desks had not arrived, blackboards were not placed, no wardrobes for the pupils’ clothing, radiators uninstalled, workmen moving about the building. In addition to the Our Lady of Refuge student body, P.S. 46 occupied the fourth floor (P.S. 46 returned to the 4th floor in 1993 and are still there. Their rent keeps our school and parish solvent.) Teaching continued despite the deafening noise of continuous pounding. However, by Thanksgiving, law and order had descended with great quiet and the work of the school was taken up in earnest.”
Another side of Fr. Fullam’s personality was revealed in his dealings with contractors. A shrewd businessman, he required each workman to complete his contract in an entirely satisfactory manner before payment would be made. A preserved letter illustrates this concern:
“Were our positions reversed, can you by any stretch of the imagination see yourself pay under such circumstances? Why your whole business instinct would rise up in revolt against criminal negligence.”
“Is it fair, then, to try to induce me to prove myself such a business fool? I am appointed custodian of my peoples’ hard-earned money. Should I in unbusiness-like fashion carelessly expend – literally waste – this money? Would I be worthy of the Sacred Trust committed to me by His Eminence, Cardinal Hayes?”
“Kindly go to work at once and make your job on our premises a perfect one, and I repeat, your money will be paid instantly.”
Fr. Fullam’s hard business sense, however, was tempered with love. Several years later, records show that when the Depression struck and a laborer was unable to collect some money owed him by one of the contractors, Fr. Fullam’s generosity came to the fore. An affidavit signed by the laborer stated:
“In my financial distress Fr. Fullam has kindly come to my rescue and has given me , or rather loaned me, the money owed me by Mr. ----- with the solemn understanding attested before a Notary Public, however, that IF and WHEN Mr.—is ready to make good I shall return the $135.00 to Fr. Fullam.”
In October, 1925, the auditorium/gym saw its first use as the site of a parish bazaar, later described by the monthly Parish Voice as “a phenomenal, glorious success. It has brought in, clear of all expenses, about $9,000.00.” That year parishioners had the joy of attending Midnight Mass in the new church – an occasion that year for joyfully commemorating not only the birth of Our Lord, but the birth of a monument of faith to his everlasting glory. It was truly a “Christmas to Remember” for every member of the new parish, a little more than 2 years old.
The new Church was formally dedicated on April 11, 1926. According to the New York American, an overflow crowd happily joined in the celebration. The article reported “the congregation has almost doubled its roster and now ranks as one of the largest of the denomination in the upper city. Just as soon as the church was dedicated, parish men turned their attention to a vital social matter, the formation of an athletic club which would bring boxing bouts, with their fun, and funds, to the parish. That month’s issue of the Parish Voice carried the following: “We are sure that the announcement of the establishment of an Athletic Club in our parish will be received with pleasure. One of the enterprises of this club will be the staging of amateur bouts. Bouts have already been scheduled for Friday evening, April 30th, and Monday evening May 3rd. For both occasions the preliminaries promise to be most interesting, while the finals are guaranteed to furnish worthy climaxes. Come early and choose your seat.”
The development of a vibrant Christian community, led by an inspired and inspiring pastor, blessed by good fortune and a fellowship of love and faith, was well under way during those eventful first years, 1923-29. Within its first few years OLR had established a precedent as a loving, sharing, growing parish.
-The Great Depression – The Early 1930’s
This was a time of stress and suffering for many, including the parishioners of OLR. It brought parishioners together in true Christian fellowship and charity. The cost of the church-school had exceeded the original estimate of $350,000.00 by another $150,000.00. Parishioners were concerned with the large mortgage, an obligation individual parishioners felt was part of their personal debt. However a belief in God’s Providence and a feeling of “the Lord will provide” prevailed. Even though there was not much to give, Fr. Fullam’s congregation continued to contribute what they could. The Lord did provide, but first there was much hardship and deprivation. Parish records show that although the number of Catholics within parish boundaries increased from 3,250 in 1929 to about 5,000 in 1932, parish receipts decreased sharply as the devastating effects were felt.
Our Lady of Refuge’s Athletic Club through its president, Joseph L. Melody, proved a welcome relief from everyday cares, its boxing matches drawing ever larger crowds. People came from all over the city, at times being unable to find a parking space or being turned away at the door, as the attendance climbed to the 2,000 mark. The parish-sponsored matches were a proving ground for many champs, two of whom were the Belloise brothers, Mike and Steve. The bouts were also a source of funds that were funneled to worthy causes. The Athletic Club’s 1931 financial report shows that $230.00 from the net receipts was contributed to the Bronx Unemployed Relief Fund and $230.00 went to the Parish Relief Fund.
Another organization that helped to lighten the burdened hearts of many during those trying times was the Our Lady of Refuge Players. Here, too, there was social concern shown in the distribution of its proceeds. An advertisement for The Patsy, presented on February 10, 1932 announced: “Remember this is for the poor of the parish.”
Meanwhile and as far back as 1926, Father Fullam’s health had begun to fail. His zeal and sacrifices in establishing the parish had taken their toll.
As the years went on, more and more responsibility shifted to the shoulder of his curates. By 1931, he had become almost completely bed-ridden and his first assistant, Fr. Valentine Snyder, was handling most of the pastor’s duties under Fr. Fullam’s direction. Finally on March 14, 1932, less than 9 years after his arrival in 1923, the beloved founding pastor of OLR died at the rectory.
The Bronx Home News reported: “The passing of Fr. Fullam is felt by all Bronx sport followers who had the pleasure of meeting him. It was through the efforts of Fr. Fullam that the Athletic Club of Our Lady of Refuge rose to one of the leading athletic clubs in the Bronx. He was interested in the boy, and the welfare of the youth. His passing leaves a big spot in the Bronx sport world which does not appear to be an easy one to fill.”
A parishioner quoted in the April, 1932, Parish Voice said: “Fr. Fullam’s life spoke of courage, patience, and prayer. Obstacles that confronted his path only served to strengthen his purpose. Nights and days of desolation taught him to learn of his Divine Master who is meek and humble of heart. Prayer, unremitting and persevering, won for him strength to walk the way of the Cross trod by his Divine Model.”
-The New Deal
“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Thus, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ushered in the era of “The New Deal.” The Parish of Our Lady of Refuge was as economically and emotionally depressed as the rest of the country. Fr. Daniel W. Sheeran, Fr. Fullam’s successor, could see that his new congregation needed a vital uplifting. He would try to accomplish for the parish spiritually what F.D.R. as the President was attempting to do for the country materially.
“Hope,” Fr. Sheeran would say, “not regret is the watchword of the Christian life; forward, not backward, is the keynote of the Bible.” Fr. Sheeran was a scholar. His achievements were recognized early in his priesthood when his superiors sent him to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., then to the North American College in Rome, and finally to the Catholic Institute in Cologne, Germany. After serving in several parishes, he volunteered for service as a chaplain in World War I where reports show that “he saw more active service under fire than any other chaplain.” His quiet courage, fortified by deep faith, earned him seven battle stars on his chaplain’s service ribbon as well as wounds received at Chateau Thierry and at the Vesle River. Fighting Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th is more well known, but Fr. Sheeran is his less well-known equal.
An intelectual, quit, peace-loving man, his introverted nature appeared to some to be aloofness. He was a great lover of dogs, a fan of the “Lone Ranger,” and a believer in the inherent goodness of humanity. His brilliant sermons inspired the love that he predicted was the only hope for man’s future. “It is not simply civilization that the world wants, but civilization with a conscience free form taint and graft of any kind”...”The fault with society today does not lie in the industrial system but in human nature. As long as selfishness is the rule in human conduct there will be upper-man and under-man in society”...”The overwhelming greatness of man lies in his possibilities.”
In 1932, concerned with the bodily as well as the spiritual welfare of his people, Fr. Sheeran quickly and quietly began the organization of a St. Vincent de Paul Society, which he asked Mr. August Runge to chair. In addition to extending limited financial aid, the Society helped secure jobs for the unemployed, cared for needy children, aided in the teaching of released-time classes, and established a summer camp for parish youngsters.
Two years later, in 1934, conditions had eased enough that Fr. Sheeran commissioned the completion of the church’s appointments and decorations. The pulpit, designed to his specifications, was made in Italy. The bronze partitions and statues on either side of the main altar were also his idea. His artistic sense of beauty brought an inspired unity to the finished work. These two statues, The Little Flower and The Sacred Heart were moved to the rear of the church along with the statues of St Ann and St. Christopher which were in niches behind the pulpit and lectern in the sanctuary. School enrollment was again growing to the point of overflowing. It was a welcome relief when P.S. 46 moved out of OLR’s 4th floor in February of 1935.
Our Lady of Refuge suffered another loss when Fr. Snyder, who had served the parish for 16 years, was transferred to a new assignment in 1939. What one parishioner wrote about the curate in that December’s Parish Voice could well apply to most of the assistant pastors associated with OLR over the years:
“From his earliest days, Fr. Snyder literally rolled up his sleeves and worked. He labored tirelessly, unceasingly, early and late, and freely and willingly gave of his time, his energy, and his strength.”
“One could see Fr. Snyder constantly gathering in workers for the Founders’ Drive...an occasion at which the whole congregation seemed to be united in a common work for a common end. And the Catholic Charities...for weeks before, he worked from early morning until the late hours of the night systematizing the task, so that, when his workers started out, no stoned would be left unturned. His efforts in the League of the Sacred Heart, among the Children of Mary, and in the school, received equally their share in his efforts to build...to build for the Master.
“While we all rejoice with him on his promotion and wish him God’s choicest graces and blessing, there will ever be happy memories of his faithfulnessand loyalty to our Parish. Farewell, Father, and God Bless you!
Fr. Sheeran organized the Boys’ Choir which numbered about 50 cherubic voices. OLR also had a Catholic Boys’ Brigade in those days composed of grammar school boys who met one evening a week, drilled in their gold-trimmed blue uniforms, played basketball, and on occasion marched in parades. Three members who belonged to the color guard at the same time – Joseph Dunn, Frank Mullins, and James Reilly – met under quite different circumstances a few years later. As members of three different regiments, they served together in the holocaust of Iwo Jima. In the photo below are Edward and Donald Hanrahan, members of the Boys' Brigade, Memorial Day, 1935.
From the days when Our Lady of Refuge and Yankee Stadium opened there doors in the same year, famous sporting figures have been associated with the parish. In 1940, it was the world of football which focused its attention on our doors as parishioner Marie C. Planitz smilingly emerged from the church on the arm of her groom, Vincent Lombardi. OLR assistant pastor Fr. Jeremiah Nemecek solemnized the nuptials.
-World War II
After the country’s rally to recover from the Depression, the spirit of closeness was kept alive in the effort of supporting overseas war efforts. The escalation of that far-off war in Europe had finally caused U.S. involvement and, eventually, the involvement of every segment of the community and every facet of daily life. Our Lady of Refuge School gained second place among Bronx Catholic schools in the 7th War Loan Campaign. The students of the parish collected $43,000.00 which was used to purchase a light tank and five field ambulances.