The Passionists Compassion

Welcoming the World
to Queens, New York


By Lynn Ballas

Immaculate Conception parish, a landmark in the Jamaica Estates section of Queens, New York is a multi-cultural community with parishioners and pupils from close to 30 countries.


Sunday morning Mass at Immaculate Conception

The Passionists established Immaculate Conception in 1924, along with a large monastery, and a retreat league that grew into the well-known Bishop Molloy Retreat House. As many city parishes, over time Immaculate Conception has grown from one made up of a single ethnic group, Caucasian, to a worship community of Caucasians, Hispanics, Asians, Africans, and various other groups. Currently, the largest number of new immigrants comes from East Asia and the South American country of Guyana.

A city pastor takes on the world

The Rev. Thomas Joyce, C.P., is pastor of Immaculate Conception. He was assigned to the parish when he asked for an active external ministry rather than re-appointment to another term on his community's governance board.

At Immaculate Conception, Joyce has found more activity than he could imagine, experiences a Church far more expansive than that of his early life, and has been rewarded with a close and diverse circle of friends.

Joyce, who comes from Pittsburgh, and is admittedly fluent only in his native tongue of English, met with Compassion in his office at Immaculate Conception to talk about the challenges and rewards of ministering to a multi-ethnic parish.

"When I came here, I walked into a situation where it was 'we' and 'they' -- those people," said Joyce. "The neighborhood was changing, becoming more ethnic and becoming less Caucasian," he explained. "I wouldn't give myself credit for all of it, but I would say that I have really
tried to emphasize 'us.'"

Joyce and his staff emphasize "us" in the Liturgy, the work of the parish, and its many social events. He is assisted by a Rev. Theophane Cooney, who is fluent in Spanish and French and who is, in Joyce's words, "on the front line" in working with the Hispanic and Haitian members of the church. Also serving the parish are, Rev. Patrick Geinzer and Deacon
Ramon Diaz. The pastoral staff includes Sister Mary Anne Diehl, PBVM, Sister Karen Cavanagh, CSJ, and Sister Elizabeth Gildea, CSJ.

Different cultures - different styles

Joyce learned early on that at Immaculate Conception he was not only dealing with people who spoke different languages, but who also had styles of communication that were different from what he was used to. Joyce recalled a time when he tried to mediate a dispute among members of a
particular group in the parish. He decided to call everyone involved to a meeting to air their grievances. The outcome was not what he anticipated.

"Now we were trained in our counseling skills to get everything out on the table, and you deal with it, but I learned
with (this group) that you don't get everything out on the table.

"They reacted okay to being brought together, but as stuff started to come out…they left more angry than when
they came into the room," he laughed. "All of the arrows came out of the quiver." Joyce learned that the communication style of these particular people was indirect,
rather than assertive.

Worshipping, working, and socializing

Joyce and his staff lead the congregation to worship, work, and socialize together. Immaculate Conception is foremost "the place they live out their faith."

Each year, the parish holds a communal Lenten Soup Supper. Often, the funds raised at the event are dedicated to the work of Fr. Rick Frechette, C.P. in Haiti. Frechette is a doctor who runs a hospital for the very poor there.

One year, Dr. Yanick Vibert, a young woman of Haitian descent who had grown up in the parish, was the featured speaker. Vibert was a medical school classmate of Frechette. She interrupted her medical training for a year to work with him in Haiti. According to Joyce, her story touched
everyone at the supper.

"It was just a very powerful thing. If popularity is measured in money given, she was the biggest draw that we had. People felt a connection with her, people of all races," he explained.

In addition to events attended by all, each group is encouraged to have their own festivities, so all have "a sense that they are contributing to the church," Joyce said.

There is Haitian Friendship Night, two Hispanic dances, and a Filipino Christmas party. In April, the church holds an International Festival where the children dress in native costumes.

Working together

Joyce acknowledges that most people still tend to socialize with their own. "My goal is to appreciate that, but try to get people working together."

One way is through the Parish Council. Parishioners are elected to the council. The nominations come from the council itself and Joyce tries to canvass his parishioners to seek nomination. "I try to make sure (the council) is ethnically balanced. People can vote in their ethnic group but
can also vote outside of it," he said.

The fruits of working together have, at times, exceeded all expectations. Joyce recalled a bishop's capital campaign in which Immaculate Conception was assigned a goal of $555,000.

"Now I fought that with the committee of pastors. I said you're putting an impossible task before these people," Joyce said.

"But then we got working on it together and they pledged approaching a million dollars. So that taught me to never underestimate the power of people when they're working together to accomplish something."

Civic concerns

In addition to parish life, Immaculate Conception has directed parishioners with civic issues to needed resources. The parish has held sessions where representatives from various ethnic groups come to speak to their people
about their particular concerns. One session on immigration drew many people because it is so expensive to hire an immigration lawyer on one's own , Joyce explained. In addition, the Brooklyn Dioceses has a very good office for immigration issues to which the Immaculate Conception
staff refer their parishioners.

Immaculate Conception School

After talking about parish life, Joyce walked his visitors over to the Immaculate Conception School. It was lunch time, and the hallways were filled with the sounds of lively children eager to get outside for recess. The discipline instilled in these youngsters was obvious as they lined up by classes to exit the building. Principal Charlene K. Jaffie, Ed.D. walked the halls and talked to her pupils as they got ready for some fun.


Fr Joyce, C.P. with playground buddies

Once out on the schoolyard, the children clustered with their friends, played typical games like jump rope, and generally zoomed around. At one point, some youngsters jostled to have their photo taken with Joyce.

The school opened in 1938 to educate 235 pupils in grades one to five. It was staffed by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Brentwood, New York. Presently, ICS serves 420 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Approximately 62% of the pupils are Catholic and 38% are
non-Catholic.

Religious Sisters and lay men and women comprise the faculty. Faculty members hold master and bachelor degrees in education and other disciplines. A hallmark of the school is its state-of-the-art computer center made possible by a $150,000 donation by alumnus, Lawrence M. Waterhouse. "It is the school of choice in this area," said Jaffie.

Rewards of diversity

Walking the grounds, one has the sense that so much takes place in the world that is Immaculate Conception. Asked what the rewards of being pastor here are, Joyce said, "Well, I guess the best reward is the sense it gives you that the church is bigger than your own initial experience of it as a child or a teenager," adding, "and the reward of making friends."

"I never had any contact with any culture except Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic until I came to the Passionists and I had never been in the home of an African American person until I was about 30 years old. I count among my friends, not just pastoral friends, couples in their 50s and 40s…so personally it has expanded me," said Joyce.

"I can honestly say when I go on vacation down the Jersey shore and I go to mass on Sunday, I am mildly uncomfortable because you realize everybody in this church is white," he said.

"When you stand up to celebrate the Eucharist in our parish and you look out and see a microcosm of the world; the Liturgy just means more to you, or to me, anyway."

(Lynn Ballas writes from New Jersey.)

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