Book Review: St. Fidelis Parish in College Point, NY: The First Seventy-Five Years 1856-1931, A History

I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where many of the smaller city parishes have an ethnic affiliation — Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, and Irish to name a few. My home parish was St. Stephen of Hungary. In my childhood, we drove past the fire of the Jenny Blast Furnace of the Sheet and Tube steel mill on our way to the church. There, I heard older parishioners speak Hungarian, particularly at the yearly March 15 Hungarian Independence Day celebration and at special masses said partially in Hungarian. Unfortunately, I never learned the language. However, with my brother, cousins, and peers, I did learn and perform Hungarian Folk Dance. Every Thursday night was dance practice, and we learned a little of Hungarian culture (music, costumes, etc.) through this experience. Growing up in a tight-knit, ethnic parish was home for me. Over the years, I've moved from state-to-state and parish-to-parish. I've found a home in these communities, all unique, but none has quite the same feeling of family as my home parish of St. Stephen's.

When I first read the back cover of St. Fidelis Parish in College Point, NY: The First Seventy-Five Years 1856-1931, A History (Gateway Press, 2006), by James E. Haas, the detail I honed in on was "its founding as a German-American parish in 1856." Pre-Civil War through early 20th Century history is a topic which intrigues me, though I've not had much opportunity to study that era. Instead of the steel mills of my youth, in College Point the reader learns of the rubber factories which employed many of its residents. Also, anything ethic in nature is interesting for me: my husband and I both have some German ancestry. The book surpassed my expectations for learning a bit more about the time period. Reading it, I found myself immersed in the culture and life of the hamlet in the northern part of Queens in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

James E. Haas is a fifth generation College Pointer and this is his third book on the history of College Point. Through his extensive research and artful weaving of the tale, Haas gives a taste of the parish life of the German and later Irish immigrants who called St. Fidelis Parish home. The book begins with Fr. Joseph Huber, the founding pastor of St. Fidelis Church and his immigration to the United States from Austria. The reader will follow Huber's life, across the Atlantic through parish life, including many baptisms, funerals, and confirmations, as well as the construction of church and school buildings. Haas developed the story of St. Fidelis by using facts interspersed with speculation about some of the details — "was anyone there to meet the young immigrant?" — bringing this historical data to life.

St. Fidelis' next pastor, Fr. (later Monsignor) Ambrose Schumack, joined Fr. Huber at the parish, and eventually led his flock through the trying times of World War I, prohibition, and the 1920s. Also born in Austria, he faced during the World War the unsettling fact that his adopted country was at war with his homeland. Both Fr. Huber and Fr. Schumack encouraged and helped maintain the German identity of their parishioners by keeping the German language active and alive during Mass and at the parish school, though during and after World War I, the German identity was not so strongly and openly supported.

Details of Charles Dockendorf and Ellen Hanfley's marriage, the author's great-grandparents, are interspersed throughout the book. The couple had ten children, seven dying in infancy or at very tender ages. The role of Fr. Huber and Fr. Schumack, as baptizer and comforter to this couple and many others was poignant. This book gave me a new appreciation for the important role a pastor plays in family life — from birth to death.

In addition to these two notable pastors, many other College Pointers' histories add to the depth of this book, making it a history of College Point as well as St. Fidelis Parish. In fact, it seems a history of College Point would be incomplete without details from St. Fidelis Parish. Many noteworthy, and some simply interesting folks called College Point home or had some connection to St. Fidelis. Among them, the Ridders (Knight-Ridder newspapers) and Fleishmans (Fleishman Yeast Company), Sisters of St. Dominic, architects and rubber workers.

Two other special matters Haas addresses are life insurance and education. For families who lost their breadwinner prematurely, an unfortunately common experience in the first 75 years of St. Fidelis Parish, this matter was highly important. Catholic education, the formation of youth, was also a high priority — many of the fundraising efforts and interesting quotes in the book relate to the parish schools.

This book, though not long in pages (just 140, including notes and content-rich appendices), is substantial in interesting, informative content. The details give this book catholic appeal (in the universal sense). Even if you aren't German and don't hail from New York, St. Fidelis Parish has a fascinating history to share. The book gives 21st Century Americans a peek into the past — a time when German and Irish immigrants were often looked upon as outcasts — and shows the timeless role of the Church as mother to us during our journey on earth.

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