With the turn of a key and the release of some blue-and-white balloons, the Church of the Immaculate Conception faded into history.
The balloons hung in the air at first without the loft necessary to advance skyward.
“Even the balloons don’t want to go,” remarked Rose Hochmuth of Schenectady.
That summed up how the congregation felt as the church — a mainstay of the Bellevue neighborhood for the past 106 years — celebrated its final Sunday Mass. It is merging with Our Lady of the Assumption in Rotterdam to create a new parish called Our Lady, Queen of Peace.
Many Catholic churches have closed in the last year as part of the Albany Catholic Diocese’s Called to BE Church process, necessary to confront a migration of Catholics to the suburbs and decline in church attendance.
Ninety seven-year-old Carrie Marocco of Schenectady, who has been a member of the church most of her life, turned the key to lock the doors. She described the congregation as very friendly and giving.
Marocco said she was council president, involved with the Rosary Society and the committee to initiate new Catholics. She even helped clean and decorate the altar.
“We used to get on our hands and knees scrubbing and waxing it. I am going to miss it,” she said.
A packed house attended a nearly two-hour service. The Rev. Robert DeMartinis, pastor, encouraged his congregation not to lose hope.
“While there is sadness with the closing of this church, we can be grateful for all it has given to us,” he said. “We know what we believe cannot be limited by bricks and mortar.”
During his homily, DeMartinis said he did not like use of the term “closing liturgy” to describe Sunday’s service, because celebration of the Eucharist will continue at Our Lady, Queen of Peace.
“We are a pilgrim people. We are constantly moving forward,” he said.
He also noted all the sacraments that were celebrated during the church’s history — 6,752 baptisms, 6,510 First Communions, 4,986 Confirmations, 2,186 weddings and 2,820 funerals.
DeMartinis used the words of the late Pope John Paul II to get the congregation through this difficult time. “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.”
“God bless you. Love you all,” DeMartinis said to a standing ovation.
He also called on the congregation to embrace the Rev. Vincent Ciotoli, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption, who will be pastor of the new church.
“Help us not to fear change but welcome your grace as we work together to serve you and one another,” Ciotoli prayed during the intercessions.
DeMartinis also used incense to bless the altar, sprinkled the congregation with Holy water and prayed over the baptismal font, Stations of the Cross and lectern.
DeMartinis, affectionately referred to by parishioners as “Father Bob,” is moving on to become pastor of St. Stanislaus in Amsterdam. Some parishioners like Sue Impellizzeri, who worked as a cleaner for the church for 15 years, said they planned to attend services at his new parish.
“I enjoyed Father Bob and the people. It’s like a family here,” Impellizzeri said. “I buried my father through the church. I buried my grandmother through this church. My niece got married here. A lot of baptisms.”
Catherine Sangermano of Schenectady said she loved DeMartinis’ “beautiful” homilies. “He’d give sermons that no other priest gave. That’s the way I feel in my heart. He is a very spiritual priest.”
Frank Legere, 82, of Rotterdam is part of a family that have been parishioners for upwards of 70 years. He used two words, “loyalty” and “fidelity,” to describe the parish and the different pastors and assistant pastors that have passed through the doors. Legere served as president of the first parish council in 1971.
He added that the church has also responded to the changing times. It instituted a folk music Mass with guitar players in 1969 located in then-Immaculate Conception Church. The service proved to be so popular that it was moved to the main church the following year.
It also adapted to the styles of the different pastors. “We went from a very liberal-minded parish to a very conservative one,” he said.
Ralph DiGiorgio of Schenectady, a 50-year member, enjoyed participating in church activities, including a committee that helped initiate new Catholics. “We brought a lot of converts into our faith,” he said.
His wife, Carmela, recalled all the wonderful priests. “There’s sadness but also joy. We’re looking forward to having the new parish.”
Still it was difficult for some.
“I’m going to miss this so much. I’m hurting,” said Gina Bianchi of Schenectady, who lives right across the street from the church and has attended for a half-century.
Bianchi hasn’t decided where she will go to church.
“We can’t hold on to anything now. We have nothing left.”