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Over 123 years of serving the people of God in Coney Island Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace History: Part 6 The Phoenix Rises into the Next Millenium

Beginning with the arrival of the new millennium. a renewed interest in Coney Island took place as new generations, eager for the summers at the free beach along the Boardwalk and curious about the old cradle of amusements parks, came by the tens of thousands. Recalling the free-wheeling raucous days of Coney island, the Mermaid Parade became an annual tradition every June, and Nathan’s Annual Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest became a national sensation. The decrepit BMT elevated terminal was about to shuttered and demolished (with the exception of the West End steel structure added a few years after the rest of the concrete station had been completed) in 2003 in preparation for the building of a new, modern and airy terminal that would really help spark Coney Island’s revival.

Rev. Patrick J. West, the popular pastor of St. Peter Claver Parish, was appointed to succeed Fr. Bellantonio, and he immediately went to work in turning things around in the parish. The Diocese of Brooklyn closed Our Lady of Solace School in June and Fr. West set out plans for leasing the building. Eventually, part of the school was leased to HeartShare Human Services and the rest to the City’s Board of Education for the creation of commercial sports management high school.  Upon purchasing a small Roland electric console piano, a full-time music ministry was established in 2002 with James Pfister as its first Music Director, and choirs for both English and Spanish Masses were formed. Repairs were made to the church’s badly-decaying roof. Social outreach programs were established and Catholic Charities started a weekly food pantry from the rectory’s basement. In partnership with the Police Athletic League, Fr. West established the Our Lady of Solace Baseball League, one of several successful and popular programs reaching out to the youth of the parish. The liturgy itself had become more vibrant under Fr. West and attendance began to slowly tick upward. With Religious Education Coordinator Augusto Lucero, Fr. West established one of the finest CCD programs in the Diocese. On October 1st, 2003, Robert Weigel, formerly the associate organist at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Forest Hills, Queens, arrived to take over as music director, organist, and cantor after the departure of James Pfister.

Rev. Patrick J. West,  pastor of  Shrine Church  of Our Lady of Solace from 2002 to 2012

On December 8th, 2003, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a new parish hymn written and composed by Mr. Weigel was introduced. Titled “Our Lady of Solace,” it was quickly adopted by the parish and added to all of the church’s hymnals.

In February of 2004, Fr. West organized a Mardi Gras fundraiser at Gargiulo’s Restaurant to raise money for much-needed roof repairs; the roof leaked like a sieve during heavy rainstorms. The effort was worth it; funds were raised beyond expectations. Almost completely ignored by the Diocesan newspaper The Tablet over recent years and with the great tower no longer seen from the Belt Parkway, most former parishioners thought that the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace had closed and that the parish no longer existed.  When Fr. West commissioned the creation of the parish website, more and more former parishioners discovered that their beloved parish was still very much alive and they were eager to add their support.  Later that spring, the first version of the Youth Choir was established. Mass attendance (Saturday 5:00 PM Mass being the exception) and collections were on the increase, and Fr. West achieved the highest percentage of parishioner participation in the Annual Catholic Appeal in the Diocese of Brooklyn over several years. Through generous gifts from parishioners and others who simply wished to give, the church received new lighting and a new sound system.

Coney Island, in the meantime, was firmly on the rise after the completion of the new Stillwell Avenue elevated subway terminal in 2004.  Spacious, airy and designed as a tribute to the three original great theme parks, it was given a spire resembling those of Luna Park, a large window looking out over Surf Avenue resembling that of the Steeplechase Park Pavilion of Fun, and lots and lots of lights recalling Dreamland. Millions of people were returning to the area for the Mermaid Parade, the Hot Dog Eating Contest, the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, the Boardwalk, and the beach during the summer. However, a pothole in the road threatened to derail that momentum. The Albert family, owners of Astroland were made a huge offer by notorious commercial property flipper Joseph Sitt of Thor Equities for the site. It was Sitt’s idea to revive the old Fred Trump plan of turning Coney Island into as second Atlantic City with a $1.5 billion plan to build 20-story hotels and casinos, plus glitzy and expensive shopping plazas and pricey upscale amusements. In 2007 the property was sold. Due to public outcry and political resistance, Sitt leased the land back to the Alberts to operate Astroland for one more season in 2008. Sitt then opened a collection of trucked-in temporary carnival amusements on the Astroland site in 2009, calling it Dreamland Amusement Park. It didn’t even last the season. Finally, seeing that he would never get the zoning permits to proceed with his plan, he offered to sell the Astroland site and Thor’s properties adjacent to the Boardwalk to the City of New York, but at a substantial profit for “Flipper Joe.”

Central Amusements International (CAI), a unit of Zamperla, the great Italian manufacturer of amusement rides and operator of Central Park’s wildly popular summertime family amusement park Victorian Gardens, had been interested in the Coney Island sites for some time, and an agreement was reached to lease the properties to CAI.  Reaching back into Coney Island’s past, a new Luna Park, complete with spires, animated lights and circles similar to its long-deceased predecessor, opened adjacent to the Cyclone and across Surf Avenue from the original Luna Park site. The new park opened for the 2010 season and saw over two million visitors in its first season. The City-owned Cyclone continued to be operated by the Albert family through 2010, but they retired after the season and the management and operation of the 1927 rollercoaster was given to CAI. The following year, Luna Park added its high-thrill Scream Zone with its new Soaring Eagle tubular horizontal ride coaster on the site of the old Tornado bobsled-style rollercoaster.

Fr. West’s popularity, as well as the incredible turnaround that helped the parish to once again take its place as a community cornerstone, caused Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio to appoint him to a second six-year term as pastor in 2008. Eventually, Heart Share Human Services terminated its lease in the school building and the entire building was then leased to the Board of Education, becoming Liberation High School. It seemed that the relationship between the parish’s enormously popular pastor and the parish could go on forever. However, problems at a parish in Queens and a devastating hurricane would dramatically alter Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace’s future.


The original Roosevelt tracker organ was still unplayable and the cost to repair it enormous. Dr. Robert A. Cospito, sexton at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Forest Hills, owned a magnificent, still-new Rodgers Classic Cambridge 785 digital organ that was housed in a privately-owned house chapel on Nansen Street In Forest Hills. With the little chapel closing, Dr. Cospito generously offered to sell the instrument to the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Solace for a tiny fraction of its original cost, his desire being that the organ would be going to a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to where he could be assured it would be always appreciated and maintained. At the Saturday 5:00 PM Vigil Mass for the Solemnity of the Assumption, parishioners spent much of the Mass with their heads turned to the rear as they heard the first perfect tones of a pipe organ (though digitally sampled) in the church at a Mass in more than a decade. It was formally blessed and dedicated later that October with an Organ Dedication Concert that had organists Mark Victor Smith, Timothy J. Brown of St. Anne’s Church in Garden City, and former Our Lady of Solace Music Director James Pfister (Logan) join Robert Weigel in celebrating and playing the new instrument.  Sopranos Elizabeth Nolan of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Forest Hills, and Gloria Christi-Brown of St. Anne’s Church in Garden City also lent their magnificent voices to the gala event.  Over the years, the music ministry played a continuously growing role in the liturgies with its three choirs: Adult Choir, Coro Español, and Youth Choir.

The Rodgers Classic Cambridge 785 organ that replaced the old  Odell/Hilborne Roosevelt  tracker instrument