Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

July 3, 2010


Vivian Harris was a tall, good-looking woman, fashionably dressed at whatever social or professional event she might be participating in. Vivian gave much of her time and wealth for the welfare of children. Last Monday I attended a memorial service for her, conducted by a woman rabbi. She had died a week previously.Family, friends, and associates came together to remember and honor this elegant woman.

Life is relationships and a priest in New York City is blessed with a great variety, many of his own faith community, many of other or none such communities. A relationship develops from working together in what are frequently spiritual enterprises. That's what brought Vivian into my circle, or me into her's. As pastor of St. Joseph's on East 87th street, I was faced with two five-story buildings, which had been a convent, now empty and up for sale.

Our parish school had been staffed for many years by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Like all such communities, they were dying off, perhaps by the lack of recognition by their own Church of their distinguished history and capabilities for the future. The four remaining nuns moved into a nearby "affordable housing" development. The convent buildings were not energy efficient, expensive to heat and maintain. The four remaining sisters quickly adapted to their two apartments and became happy residents.

Enter Vivian. She was seeking to establish a Ronald McDonald's House, a hostel for children afflicted with cancer and their parents, here in New York. Her scouts had come upon our convent and thought it an admirable resource, with the Sloan-Kettering cancer center nearby. Negotiations were carried out and we sold the buildings to the RMDH. This was 1979 - the exact date too distant to remember. Soon twenty-four children with one or both parents were in residence, most from faraway places in the states or overseas. Proximity to our parish church enabled us to be of service to the many Catholic families and a gracious presence to all. On my appointment to Epiphany Parish, a new pastor and his associate, Father Peter Colapietro came to St. Joseph's. Pete, with his super-sized physique and remarkable personality, was also an accomplished chef. Each week saw him frequently at the House, preparing the best Italian pastas for the kids and entertaining them with his stories.

The demand for the use of the House increased quickly. Vivian was a gifted fund raiser and helping families with a sick child has great appeal. With financing underwritten by the McDonald Cooperative ( a three-state association of individual stores), a new House was built at 405 E. 73rd Street, with facilities for eighty-two families, communal kitchens,various playrooms, and a chapel. As a member of the Board of Directors, I had the opportunity to work closely with Vivian, the architect, and other board members, mostly top flight executives, doctors, and other professionals. Vivian was an enthusiastic supporter of the chapel and a Pastoral Care Department that I was able to develop. Chaplains from the beginning included a series of ministers from the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian denominations and a Reconstructionist rabbi.

From the beginning of the House on East 73rd street, I offered Mass each Wednesday evening. On one Ash Wednesday, I crossed the street after Mass, as was my custom, to Metaluna, a fine Italian restaurant. The maitre d' noticed the black smudges on the foreheads of my party. "Oh", he said, "we forgot about Ash Wednesday. Do you think you could give ashes to my staff? They would appreciate it." After Mass, I went back to the House, took a little dish of ashes, and returned. The maitre d' ushered me and his staff into the kitchen. After a very brief "service", all received the ashes - waiters, chefs, sous chefs, dishwashers, salad men, and hat check girls! As the pretty girls and handsome Italian waiters paraded out of the kitchen, the fashionable East Siders looked up, startled, from their steaks. Something had happened in that kitchen. Every forehead now had a black smudge!

The present chaplain is Catholic. She has arranged with local priests for Mass in the chapel each Wednesday. She has arranged, as needed, to have baptisms, First Holy Communions, and Confirmations ( by the local vicar). She conducts an interfaith service once a week. The Episcopalian chaplain was male; all the others and the rabbi were women! An indication of the availability and competence of women in pastoral care. Our beloved Church has so much to learn. Would it not make sense to have Cherilyn offer the Mass and hear confessions for these parents so far away from home, and, perhaps, the Church?

A priest learns to work collaboratively with his own people; and he learns to work collaboratively along a wider spectrum with all God's people!