Fr. Samuel Grega was succeeded as pastor by Fr. Capistran Petrie, who served from 1937 until
1943. A former professor at St. Bonaventure College, his character and pastoral zeal would guide St. Francis Church towards its one-hundredth year of service in New York City.
Fr. Capistran enlarged the parlor facilities to develop the ministry of pastoral counselling. He also introduced Friday devotions in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows, bringing three Servite Fathers from Chicago to begin the new devotion here. It was estimated that 30,000 people attended the 23 devotions offered on the first day. In the course of time, however, as the devotion was introduced into other New York churches, Fr. Capistran reduced the number of Friday services at St. Francis Church, and he initiated the popular and traditional devotion
of the Way of the Cross.
In the early years of World War II, Fr. Capistran had a special place in his heart for the many service men and women. In 1941 he obtained permission from the Military Vicar the Armed Forces, Archbishop Francis Spellman, to offer Mass Sunday afternoons at 3:00 PM for the exclusive convenience of men and women in the uniform of the country’s service. During one of the Masses, Archbishop Spellman slipped quietly into back pew to observe the Mass. The faith and devotion of the so impressed him that, at the end of the Mass, he went to the altar and asked the priest’s permission to speak to the congretation. His concluding words were, “What I have seen here today, I shall not quickly forget.” The fact that he performed this quasi-liturgical act attired in street clothes, a daringly unepiscopal gesture in 1941, heightened the significance of the moment for the friars and people alike.
Brothers were stationed at each of the church’s entrances with strict instructions to deny entrance to any person not in military uniform. Even the determined Massachusetts politician, James Michael Curley, was unable to elicit an assenting “Hurrah” from Fr. Capistran’s vigilant porters. Unaccustomed to being denied exemption, the former governor of Massachusetts reported his exclusion to Archbishop Spellman, and he expected his fellow Bostonian to vindicate him and admonish the friars. When Spellman later brought the complaint to Fr. Capistran, the Archbishop congratulated him for exercising due vigilance and for perpetrating the year’s most humorous “teapot tempest.” “How did you find out?” Fr. Capistran asked. The Archbishop replied: “His Honor came up here and complained to me. I told him he will have to join the Army if he wants to get in.”
This series of articles on the history of our parish is adapted from the writings of Fr. Flavian Walsh, O.F.M., Pastor from 1985-87.