Our Lady of the Skies
September 14, 2023 by Amy Welborn
I ran across this a couple of days ago…not sure where. I saved it for a “random” post, but the more I looked into, the more it seemed to deserve its own.
We all know about airport chapels and prayer rooms and meditation rooms.
It is hard to imagine a time when air travel was more leisurely and non-securitized than it is now. But in the not-too-distant past, John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York was known as Idlewild International Airport, and it had a “Tri-Faith Plaza” where airline visitors could visit and pray at one of three free standing chapels aligned along the edge of a large reflecting pool near the airport’s main terminals.
Idlewild’s first chapel, Our Lady of the Skies, was built in 1954 by the Diocese of Brooklyn. When airport expansion and a new terminal required its demolition, the Port Authority of New York made room for a Tri-Faith Plaza. The new, light-filled Our Lady of the Skies chapel opened in 1966, adjacent to a Protestant chapel commissioned by the Council of Churches of the City of New York and a Jewish chapel commissioned by the Board of Rabbis International Synagogue. Each of the three chapels was set in part over a large reflecting pool that visually united the diverse buildings. (The pool was found to attract birds, and was soon drained.) Each chapel was staffed by the appropriate religious leaders, and held services on a regular basis. Services were attended by passengers and airport employees alike.
Old photographs of the plaza present a clear image of the long-departed era when air travel was exciting and ennobling—or at the very least, pleasurable. The chapels stood free of barriers, checkpoints, or security agents: walking or driving from the chapel to the terminal was certainly not a challenge. One can imagine passengers extending their time at the airport, perhaps visiting the chapel before a lunch at a restaurant near the gate. Moreover, each chapel’s soaring interior space and ample use of light and stained glass evoked an inspiring connection between the skies of the jet-age and the heavens of the Bible. Our Lady of the Angels was a popular spot for weddings (more than one thousand were performed there).
Here’s the original, built in 1955. I love the Blessed Mother standing on the propeller.
And then a closer look, exterior and interior, of the 1966 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.
The three distinctive chapels of the Tri-Faith Plaza were demolished to make room for parking and access roads in the late 1980s, and were promised space in Terminal 4. Long delays kept the new religious corridor in international departures from opening, and for more than a decade all three groups shared the same space. The new chapels finally opened in 2008, to much fanfare and with appropriate blessings by various religious leaders.
In the renovation of LaGuardia, the interdenominational chapel was…eliminated and the process of attempting to replace it has been problematic.
Just one more for the list of ….how times have changed….