St. Anthony’s parish remembers ‘underground shrine’

Oceanside — A shrine that once drew thousands of people to St. Anthony’s here decades ago lies literally buried under a parking lot, but parishioners are trying to revive interest.

“When I was still a girl my family would come out here,” said Sarah Ryan, a longtime parishioner whose family moved from Brooklyn to Oceanside decades ago. “My parents moved out here because of the shrine.” Busloads would come out every weekend from New York City, New Jersey, and other places.

It looked “like one of those grotto churches in Europe,” said Phil Savarese, who is helping spearhead the effort to tell the story of the shrine. They staffed a booth at the recent parish annual feast that featured pictures and displays of memorabilia of the shrine. Last March marked the 50th anniversary of the closing of the shrine after a fire.

“It wasn’t really underground but it was built like a basement. The roof was above ground with a window set up to allow sunlight to come in such a way to make you feel like you were in a cave,” Savarese said. “So people called it ‘the underground’ shrine or church.”

Father Robert Barrett, the founding pastor, pursued different ways to make the shrine to St. Anthony of Padua, the parish’s patron, memorable. “There was a statue of St. Francis of Assisi that had doves and other birds in cages next to the statue. There were peacocks on the parish grounds and outside corridors connecting the buildings.”

Memorabilia displayed at the booth included candlesticks and one of the tabernacles. There was also a DVD made from home movies of processions and celebrations at the shrine.

Parishioners who visited the booth at the feast saw photos of the long-closed church. One parishioner was struck by a photo of a marble altar that had a glass window on the side. Looking inside the window, you could see a statue of Jesus before the resurrection.

“I remember that,” the visitor said as she pointed to the photo. She seemed happy to have her girlhood memory confirmed.

“Father Barrett, who came from a wealthy family, used to go to auctions at homes on the Gold Coast and purchase lights and other decorative items,” said Joan Keefe, a longtime parishioner who has written a history of the parish. “It might change from week to week and some people came to see what was different.”

Today, the site of the former shrine lies beneath the parish parking lot. “There is a basketball court over it,” Savarese said.

“It is part of the history of Oceanside as well as their parish. People should know their history.”

“It’s amazing,” said Frank Criscuolo, a parishioner. “I don’t think a lot of people know about it.”

“I think a lot of people have forgotten about the shrine and this will bring it back for them,” said Dan Farrell, a longtime parishioner and retired photographer for the New York Daily News.

“You certainly had a lot of people coming to see the display. I find the whole thing fascinating,” said Jesuit Father Pat Sullivan, an associate pastor at St. Anthony’s. “You see in the video the cars that are now considered vintage. It was a different era.”