Throughout the centuries of our Church’s history, the Lord has blessed His people, in every age, in every time, with many devoted priests. Christ the Good Shepherd promised to raise up for His flock new shepherds, to lead and guide, to console and help, to celebrate His living presence in the Eucharist, and to serve His people faithfully.
One of these “good shepherds” was our own beloved Monsignor Arthur J. Scanlan. Monsignor Scanlan died on November 21, 1974. at the age of 93. But, if anything, his effect on his people, on every one of us, has grown with the passing of the years. His legacy goes on, a legacy of service to children, a legacy of faithfully administering the sacraments, a legacy of building up this parish to the glory and praise of God.
Monsignor Scanlan was born in Ireland, in Ennis, County Clare, on October 9, 1881. He was brought to this country in his early childhood. He attended Xavier High School (class of 1900) and perhaps at that time heard Christ’s call to “Come and follow me.” He attended St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia and then pursued his studies for the priesthood at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, a place that was to figure so prominently in his life. Father Scanlan was ordained to the priesthood in St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan by Bishop Cusack on July 17, 1907. He had summer pastoral assignments in Livingston Manor, St. Cecilia’s in Manhattan, and in Peekskill. After pursuing graduate studies at the Catholic University in Washington, he was assigned in September, 1909 to the faculty of Dunwoodie where (with the exception of a year of graduate studies in Rome from 1911 to 1912) he would remain for the next three decades, first as professor of philosophy for twenty years, then from 1931 to 1940 as Rector of the Seminary. Almost a thousand priests who studied at Dunwoodie during those years came under his priestly influence. As a student, a professor, and a Rector, Monsignor Scanlan was part of the history of Dunwoodie for almost four decades. He did his job of training priests in the seminary. But he also drew from Dunwoodie the deep spirituality that was to guide him for the rest of his life. In a way, Monsignor lived the life of Dunwoodie not only when he was physically living there, but ever after, as he sang God’s praises with the new people into whose lives he would come in 1940, as he walked in deep meditation praying his priestly office or his rosary, as he rose early each morning to greet Our Lord in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as he talked to God in the silence of his heart and found in prayer the strength to begin a new phase in his life, the establishment of St. Helena’s Parish.
In 1940, Monsignor Scanlan was almost sixty years of age. But he was just beginning the phase of his priestly life that would endear him to the hearts of countless thousands of people. In May of 1940, the new Archbishop (later Cardinal) Francis Spellman wanted a “good shepherd” for a new parish that had literally emerged overnight. Parkchester was just being completed, with thousands of young Catholics families moving in. Archbishop Spellman called on Monsignor Scanlan to establish this new parish. When a name for the new parish was to be selected, Monsignor Scanlan suggested the name of the patron saint of the Archbishop’s mother, St. Helena, and the parish of St. Helena was born.
Just as the Lord was born in the simplicity of the stable of Bethlehem, St. Helena’s Parish was born in the simplicity of Loefler’s Casino. Monsignor offered the first Mass of St. Helena’s Parish there on the second Sunday of June in 1940. Monsignor would have a great deal of fun in commenting in later years on the humble beginnings of his parish. When asked where he lived in those early days, he would respond cleverly, “I lived over the saloon.” He would remind his people that their holy patroness, St. Helena, had been an innkeeper long before she became a queen. Those were pioneer days when, with his parishioners lending a helping hand, the beer garden was transformed into a fitting place for Mass. Monsignor even cleverly arranged mirrors so that people could see the altar wherever the were sitting in the Casino. Quickly, construction for the new church was begun. Ground was broken on December 1, 1940. The cornerstone was laid by Monsignor on June 8, 1941. Work progressed rapidly and Monsignor was able to celebrate the first Mass in the auditorium of the new building on October 4, 1941. While the first St. Helena Christmas Midnight Mass had been celebrated in Loew’s American Theater in 1940, by the following Christmas Monsignor rejoiced that Midnight Mass could be offered in the newly completed St. Helena’s Church. Archbishop Spellman came to dedicate the completed church on May 3, 1942. The Archbishop was surprised more by the enthusiasm of the parishioners than by the new building itself. He was further touched by the amazing amount of spiritual work that Monsignor Scanlan had already accomplished in such a short time.
For Monsignor Scanlan had built not just a church of stone and brick. He had built a church of people, his people, the people he had welcomed into his heart, the people who welcomed him into their hearts. He was everywhere! He was there walking up and down the aisle leading the singing at Mass (and nobody worried whether he was off key). He was there for the children, at school plays and Christmas parties, at the boxing matches and basketball games, and even at roller skating on Saturday afternoons. He was always there for his people, whether in great public displays like the bazaar parades in Parkchester or the St. Patrick’s parade on 5th Avenue, or in those very quiet and private moments when he would counsel an engaged couple, comfort a woman whose husband was fighting in World War II, or hear the confessions of the countless people who would come to him to hear his words “Keep up the good work.”
Monsignor was the first to give credit to the priests and religious who helped him make St. Helena’s Parish so strong. His first two assistants, Father Gustav Schultheiss and Father Henry Vier, helped him in those “pioneer days” to build the new parish. He was blessed with wonderful priests, Father Joseph O’Shea (assigned in 1942 and serving here until his death two years ago), Father (later bishop) Patrick Ahern, Father Walter Darcy, Father Edmund Fogarty, Father Maurice Sullivan, Father James Hargrove, Father John Reilly, Father Frank McGowan, Father Owen McEnaney, Father Edward Montano, Father Frank Walsh, Father Patrick Carney, Father John Cody, and other priests who came to help him serve his people. He was blessed to have the help of wonderful religious sisters, among them Sister Purissima Riley and Sister Mary Richard Daley, and the Marist Brothers like Brother Conan Vincent who helped him to serve the educational needs of the children.
Monsignor loved his schools, his grammar school which opened in the Loefler’s Casino days, his academic high school which opened in boys and girls departments in 1949, and his commercial high school which opened in 1957. He loved young people and they loved him in return. He particularly loved the Kindergarten and he used to joke so often at Kindergarten graduation time that the class would have one more graduate that year–Father Reilly. It was his dream to prepare young people “from Kindergarten to college.” And he did. He was particularly honored when, on his 90th birthday, Cardinal Cooke renamed the high school as Monsignor Scanlan High School.
Perhaps it was his simplicity that endeared him the most to the children and to all his people. He was never interested in honor or distinction. He enjoyed simply being called Father. There is that famous story of Monsignor answering the rectory phone and saying, “Good morning, this is Father Scanlan.” And the voice on the other end of the phone replied, “Not to be outdone in humility, this is Father Spellman.”
He was blessed with good humor and wit. He would tell his people so often that, if they did not have anything to put in the collection, they could put in buttons–but he preferred red ones so that he could sew them on his cassock. How many times he repeated the line that Father Hargrove to him, but a line that would be associated with Monsignor Scanlan always, “It’s fun to be good.” In a way, those words symbolized his life. He lived the goodness of Christ. He had fun in doing so and he taught that to his people. It is a lesson that has carried so many Helenites through their lives ever since.
In a Holy Name bulletin, dated October 1944, these words were written: “Will the spirit of St. Helena’s Parish continue after the beginning days are a matter of history? Is this unusual spirit a flash in the pan or will it last?
As long as we have the outstanding leadership of Monsignor and the priests of the parish and the loyal support of all in the parish, this spirit will not only continue but will increase. Unselfish service by the priests who place the primacy on spiritual values will bring great blessings from God and loyal support from the people.”
How well put! The greatest monument to Monsignor Scanlan is not the buildings that he built. His greatest monument is the people he served, the people he helped bring closer to God, the people whose “good shepherd” he was indeed.
The years come and go. But Monsignor lives in our hearts as we carry on his work in this parish and as his children and their children bring it literally to every corner of the world. How many of our graduates have come across a fellow Helenite in another part of the country and even in another part of the world and how many conversations have gone along these lines, “Do you remember when Monsignor Scanlan…”
You may fill in your own memories. We will all hold them dear. We will always hold Monsignor Scanlan dear to our hearts. Even if you did not personally know Monsignor Scanlan, he should be a special priest for you. Like everyone else, you belong to him.
Well over a century ago, a French priest wrote these words about the priesthood. Monsignor Scanlan lived these words every day of his life. May this prayer be our prayer of thanks for this “good shepherd” of the Lord:“To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures, To be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; To share all sufferings, to penetrate all secrets, to heal all wounds; To go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; To have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity; To teach and to pardon, to console and bless always-‑ My God, what a life! And it is yours, O Priest of Jesus Christ!”
Msgr. Thomas P. Derivan
Michael A Scanlan (1853 - 1934)
Maria O'Keeffe Scanlan (1857 - 1899)
Lawrence A Scanlan (1878 - 1975)*
Martin A Scanlan (1879 - 1963)*
Arthur J Scanlan (1881 - 1974)*
Frances M Scanlan (1884 - 1972)*
Michael A Scanlan (1892 - 1967)*
Patrick Francis Scanlan (1895 - 1983)
Joseph A Scanlan (1899 - 1984)*
New York, USA