Our Lady of the Skies Chapel at Idlewild Airport (name of the airport used until December 24, 1963) was founded in 1955. During World War II, Bob O’Brien, on leave from U.S. Customs, was serving in the Army in Europe. Under fire behind enemy lines, he promised Our Lady as he prayed that he would do something special for her if he got out alive to return to his wife, Mae Catherine, and their daughters Mary Pat, Maureen, and Gail. He returned safely to his family and to work at Idlewild Airport for U.S. Customs. While on vacation in Boston, he saw the new Chapel at Logan airport and decided to work for a Chapel at the New York Airport. Bob, along with Jim Schiebel, Ray Schiebel, and Bill Lanning – all of U.S. Customs – contacted Fr. Arthur Herold, the pastor of Christ the King Parish in Springfield Gardens, and asked for a priest to offer Holy Mass at the airport for its employees, The manager of the Brass Rail Restaurant graciously agreed to its use for the Sunday morning Mass. Fr. Walter Missbach often came to offer the Mass. The Rosary was said each Thursday by airport and FAA employees in hangars and offices in the onset huts.
The Catholic employees at the airport began to work on the idea of building an airport Chapel, the fundraising began and the Catholic Guild was formed. In 1953 a dance was held for this purpose in the Triangle Ballroom in Richmond Hill. A “get to know each other” dinner dance was held in the Battalion Hall in Elmhurst in 1954. The committee worked together with Msgr. Ronald McDonald of the Brooklyn Diocese Building Office on plans for an airport Chapel. In 1955 the new Our Lady of the Skies Chapel was dedicated. The priests from Christ the King Parish served the worshippers. Hundreds of airport employees and travelers attended the Masses each week.
In 1966 the Chapel was dismantled to make room for a terminal expansion for British Airways, and in the same year the new Chapel was erected at the cost of one million dollars. Most of the money was in the form of a mortgage held by the Diocese of Brooklyn. Bishop Brian McEntegart encouraged and sponsored the Chapel’s construction in spite of its great cost. He appointed Fr. Joseph Fox as the first full-time Catholic Airport Chaplain. Fr. Fox with a core of about 25 dedicated members, ran a monthly booster club and helped in other programs to support the new Chapel. Msgr. Francis Fitzgibbon, the pastor of Christ the King Parish coordinated the building of the new Chapel.
The Chapel’s extraordinary beauty, with its 16-foot high statue of Our Lady affixed behind the white marble altar, the exquisite stained-glass windows, and other fascinating features made it a most popular location for weddings, attracting airline employees, and other young couples as well. More than 100 weddings a year were held at the Chapel, and Fr. Fox was kept very busy preparing young couples for their wedding day.
On Election Day, November 6, 1973, Fr. Fox, an avid pilot, died in a crash of a small private plane at Dix Hills, Long Island. The airport community was devastated by its loss of their beloved Chaplain.
In November of1973 Bishop Francis Mugavero appointed Fr. Thomas Flanagan to replace Fr. Fox. The full Mass schedule—Saturday at 5 & 8 PM, 12 midnight, and Sunday at 7, 9 and 11 AM, 12 noon, 5 & 8 PM—continued, with a total weekend Mass attendance of more than 1,000 people. Fr. Flanagan was also kept busy with the wedding preparations of many young couples. He was very much involved with the Catholic Guild and its fundraising efforts. In 1969 he began an annual dinner dance, with a lottery for a Cadillac, an advertising journal, and direct mail appeal to about 1,000 people on mailing lists. He was called upon to offer the invocation prayers at many airport and Port Authority functions. He developed a close relationship with many of the “Kennedy Family” as it was called. He had an especially friendly relationship with the Port Authority Police Department, which called upon him when a priest was needed for airport accidents and emergencies. They asked him to assume the role of the PAPD Emerald Society Chaplain. He was available for counseling and marched with them each year in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He was named a Monsignor in October of 1982. Fr. Joseph Buckley was assigned by bishop Mugavero to assist Fr. Flanagan in 1978. He served the people at the airport very well until his retirement in 1988.
The Port Authority informed the Airport Chaplains that when the twenty-year lease expired in 1986, the Chapels would have to come down to make way for another expansion. The last Mass was offered on Christmas Day 1988 in the Chapel, and on New Year’s Day 1989 the Mass was offered in the interim Chapel on the second floor of the International Arrivals Building.
Msgr. Flanagan planned to retire in 1989 and Bishop Mugavero assigned Fr. James Devine to be the new full-time Catholic Chaplain in October 1988. Fr. Devine as a seminarian had worked in the first Chapel and was familiar with many of the people at the airport. His arrival was welcomed by many of his airport friends. After being at the Chapel for only a few months, he and Rabbi AlvinPoplack and Rev. Lars Silverness responded to the needs of the family members who lost loved ones on Pan Am Flight 103, which was due to land at Kennedy Airport but crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland. Fr. Devine and his fellow Chaplains responded to comfort the family members of those on TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996. Fr. Jim was very involved in consoling many employees of Port Authority and their families after September 11, 2001 tragedy. He attended numerous funerals and memorials offered for the victims of 9/11. Additionally, Fr. Jim was elected the President of the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains and served in this capacity between 1993 and 1999. Fr. Jim still continues to serve as Port Authority Chaplain. The current Chapel was dedicated on August 14, 2002, by Bishop Thomas Daily and is equipped with a new statue of Our Lady of the Skies made in Oberammergau, Germany, and a chalice donated by Pope Paul VI, which was used by the Pope to celebrate the Mass for Peace at Yankee Stadium on October 4, 1965.
Upon Fr. Jim’s retirement in 2005, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio appointed Fr. Gerard Walker as the next Chaplain at Our Lady of the Skies. Soon after the Chapel was introduced into the Internet, and so it increased its reach beyond the physical location of JFK Airport. Fr. Walker and the Catholic Guild were blessed to witness Benedict XVI’s departure from JFK on April 20, 2008.
At the end of January 2010 Fr. Walker welcomed his retirement. The next month Bishop DiMarzio entrusted the ministry of Our Lady of the Skies Chapel to Fr. Chris Piasta. Only two months later the new Chaplain was tested in action when due to the Icelandic volcano ash cloud, several hundreds of stranded passengers were forced to stay at JFK for about a week. In the subsequent years Fr. Chris responded to two airplane incidents at LaGuardia Airport. Currently, the Chapel proudly continues to serve the airport community of JFK and LaGuardia Airports, serving over 70 million passengers and about 50,000 employees, plus cabin crews.
1955 to 1965 - Msgr. Francis Fitzgibbon and Priests of Christ the King Parish in Springfield Gardens
1966 to 1973 - Father Joseph Fox
1973 to 1989 - Msgr. Thomas J. Flanagan
1978 to 1988 - Father Joseph Buckley
1988 to 2005 - Father James T. Devine
2006 to 2010 - Father Gerard T. Walker
2010 to present - Father Chris J. Piasta