“Window into Heaven” Welcomes Parishioners to Renovated Church of Queens
EAST ELMHURST, NY (CNS) – From the outside, St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother Catholic Church pairs well with the drab brick buildings that line Astoria Boulevard on the way to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Inside, however, something more striking is welcoming returning parishioners after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic: a transformed interior with a mission of its own.
The most astonishing piece is a painted 35ft by 45ft altarpiece on a new semicircular apse, exhibiting some of the most important mysteries of salvation.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, visited the East Elmhurst Ward of the Borough of Queens on July 28 to bless the altarpiece.
“When we see these beautiful images behind us, they are the window to the sky. They teach us what is to come: the glory of heaven, the mystery of heaven, ”said Bishop DiMarzio during an evening vespers service.
The bishop assured parishioners that over the years, as they learn and understand better each room that populates the mural, they will find more features that speak directly to them about God.
“You will find your special place here, where you will meet God, where you will have a window into what paradise is,” he said.
Parishioners said the blessing of the mural marked the culmination of the late pastor’s dream, Father Gioacchino Basil, for St. Gabriel of a parish that could evangelize through beauty.
Originally from Calabria, Italy, Father Basil arrived as pastor in 2008. He believed that a renovated space with a modern aesthetic could help attract people who would otherwise have little interest in the Catholic faith, especially young people.
Father Basil, when he was already battling several health problems, contracted the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic. He died on April 4, 2020, at the age of 60, after being hospitalized.
Father Nicholas Apollonio, 37, a diocesan priest from Brooklyn also from Italy, became administrator of the parish. With the church closed indefinitely, he saw an opportunity to continue the transformation that Father Basil had started.
Over the following months, the floor of the church was covered with blue carpet, a semicircular apse was built in the sanctuary, and a new altar, ambon, and floor – all in white marble – were installed.
Some of the church’s pews were reoriented to face the ambo and altar on the sides, a modification that Father Basil said would encourage greater liturgical participation in accordance with the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council.
When the church reopened in July 2020, “the excitement was even greater” for returning parishioners after the months-long shutdown, Father Apollonio said.
However, the renovation was not yet complete as the altarpiece remained.
Contemporary Spanish artist David López Ribes was commissioned to paint the altarpiece. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI awarded him the Pontifical Academies Prize for his contribution to the development of Christian humanism in contemporary society.
For more than two decades, Lopez has collaborated with Kiko Argüello, Spanish painter and co-founder of the Neocatechumenal Way, in the painting of churches and liturgical spaces around the world as part of the development of a “new aesthetic” in the ‘church.
“It has been a huge grace for me to collaborate with Kiko, and for so many years,” said Lopez, who is currently developing projects in the United States with the support of the Pontifical Council for Culture of the Vatican, as well as the Louvre in Paris. and the National Gallery in London.
The composition of the altarpiece is divided into three rows of icons, the first of which contains four scenes from the earthly life of Christ: Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism and Crucifixion. In the center is an icon of the Trinity. Flanking it on the second row are the icons of the Ascension and Dormition of the Virgin Mary, scenes intended to direct the viewer’s attention to the sky.
Directly above, Christ Pantocrator is seen blessing and holding the book of life which reads, “Love your enemies, I am coming soon.”
While the paintings follow the tradition of Eastern iconography in their composition and design, using styles and techniques drawn from innovations by modern artists, including Matisse, Braque and Picasso, explained Lopez.
“The Western Church today must reflect on the aesthetic with which it wants to carry out its mission of evangelization in the third millennium,” said Lopez.
The altarpiece was painted on stucco using mineral pigments bonded to linseed oil and turpentine as well as gold leaf from Florence, Italy. The work lasted six months with the help of a team that included Lopez’s wife and volunteers from as far away as Italy, California and Hawaii.
As part of the renovation, immersion baptismal fonts were installed in the center of the church, a modification intended to emphasize the centrality of the sacrament of baptism with the Eucharist in Christian life.
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” Father Apollonio explained. “Today it is necessary to put our baptism, our death with Christ, at the center of everything, to help the faithful understand the role of our baptism in Christian life.
Father Robert Sadlack, parish vicar in St. Gabriel, said he has noticed how the renovation regularly attracts new visitors, many from the New York area but also from elsewhere. Attendance at daily Mass now regularly exceeds 40 people, an increase from the time before the pandemic.
The priest said that more than one parishioner told him that while before they were easily distracted during mass, looking at the new icons now helps them pray and follow the liturgy better.
Father Apollonio also found the pictures useful as a catechetical tool for children. “Children tend to be very visual,” he said.
Oddly enough, the completion of the renovation of the church coincided with an unexpected announcement from Rome: the proclamation of a jubilee year by Pope Francis in February marking the 100th anniversary of the canonization of the parish’s namesake, Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother, who was declared patron saint of youth by Pope Benedict XV in 1920.
“(Father Basil) wanted to reach out to the young adult community and to all who came to Mass, and he wanted to bring them something new,” said parishioner Amador Bautista. “So getting to know God through these icons can give us faith and help us achieve eternal life. “