The Great Fire of '74

by: Tina Morales & Curtis Rist

In the early hours of a freezing February morning in 1974, a flash of sparks from electrical wires turned a 117 year old church into an inferno. Within minutes, the wood frame building, including a rectangular bell tower that had become a landmark on the Rockaway peninsula, was destroyed.

As the blaze weakened the oak timbers in the tower, a three ton bronze bell, which only hours earlier had tolled to call parishioners to evening Mass, crashed through the floor of the church and landed in the basement. The bell, which had been a gift to the congregation in the 1890s, was cracked beyond repair.

Firefighters from throughout the peninsula raced to the burning church, which had been thoroughly renovated only one year earlier. Although their efforts to save the building failed, their spirit in uniting for the parish continued.

Even before the ashes of the old St. Mary's Star of the Sea Church were cold, a new Roman Catholic Church was in the planning. This one, a modern brick building on the corner of New Haven Avenue and B. 20th Street in Far Rockaway, rose with the support of it's congregation as well as congregations across the peninsula; Jewish, Catholic and Protestant.

Donations to the church building fund grew steadily, and from a huge number of sources. Proceeds from a local synagogue's bingo games were directed to the new building, and a local Presbyterian church raised $1,700 from a garage sale. The owner of two nursing homes on the peninsula, a man who was Jewish, held a benefit for the church. And from schoolchildren, nickel-and-dime donations provided the mortar with which to cement the larger gifts, for a total of $625,000.

"The parish withstood the ravages of the Great Depression of the thirties and the coming of the automobile and railroad, which turned Far Rockaway into a year-round community," said the Rev. James McKenna, then pastor of the church. With the community firmly behind it, the parish - the third oldest in the Diocese of Brooklyn - survived the fire.

The cracked bronze bell that lay in disrepair in the charred basement was hoisted aloft and placed inside the church above the tabernacle in 1982, when the new sanctuary was dedicated. This coincided with the building's dedication, and with the parish's 125th anniversary.

Although the bell will never toll again, it is there to symbolize the community's support of the parish, and to offer a historical connection to the days when the Rockaways were populated by farmers and fishermen.

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