It is a massive, towering brick structure, set in the heart of downtown Rockville Centre. St. Agnes Cathedral — Long Island’s only Roman Catholic Cathedral — was constructed in 1937. Twenty years later, it became the seat of the newly created Diocese of Rockville Centre, and for the past 60 years it has served as a center of spirituality for the Island’s Catholic community in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
"We establish the seat of the new diocese in the Village of Rockville Centre, and accordingly we raise this village to the dignity of an episcopal city. We fix the Chair of the Bishop in the parochial church dedicated to Saint Agnes, situated in the same village, which we therefore raise to the rank and dignity of a Cathedral Church."
So decreed Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, titular archbishop of Laodicea in Phrygia and apostolic delegate of Pope Pius XII to the United States, in announcing the creation of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on May 25, 1957, according to a history published on the diocese’s website.
Nearly six decades later, on a recent Friday afternoon, Monsignor Bill Koenig, the rector, or administrator, of St. Agnes Cathedral, gave this reporter a tour of what was once a local parish church.
“I’m usually giving this tour for second-graders,” Koenig said with a laugh. Schools and religious education programs often come through.
In the early 20th century, St. Agnes was a relatively small, local church, serving a bucolic community of farmers, fishermen and small business owners. In 1935, amid the Great Depression, the church’s fourth pastor, Monsignor Peter Quealy, for whom Quealy Place in Rockville Centre is named, undertook a large-scale construction project to create what would become St. Agnes Cathedral. Contractor Dominick Milone, of Rockville Centre, was tasked with building the new church.
At the time, St. Agnes was part of the Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompassed Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties. Amid the baby boom of the post-World War II era, when Long Island’s population exploded, church officials decided to carve out a new diocese — the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Koenig said. They made Rockville Centre the Seat of the new diocese — and St. Agnes, the Chair of the bishop —because the church was the largest on Long Island.
Walter P. Kellenberg served as the very first bishop of the new diocese. His installation, on May 26, 1957, took place on a Sunday afternoon. A 10-car motorcade, escorted by two New York City motorcycle police, brought Kellenberg from this mother’s home on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx through Queens. At the Queens-Nassau border, he was met by County Executive A. Holly Paterson, who escorted him to Rockville Centre, the diocese’s history states.
Along the way from Queens, Kellenberg stopped at Blessed Sacrament and Holy Name of Mary churches in Valley Stream, Our Lady of Peace in Lynbrook and St. Raymond in East Rockaway.
Kellenberg served as the diocese’s bishop through 1976. Since then, only four other men have been bishop: John R. McGann, from 1976 to 2000; James T. McHugh, 2000; William F. Murphy, from 2001 to 2016; and now, John O. Barres, who was installed as spiritual leader of Long Island’s Catholic community on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017.
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The Bishop of Rockville Centre, whose Chair is stationed at St. Agnes Cathedral in the Village of Rockville Centre, regularly celebrates Mass at this center of worship. Bishop William Murphy, the diocese’s previous spiritual leader, held Mass there every first Sunday of the month at 11 a.m., in addition to Christmas and Easter services, according to Monsignor Bill Koenig, St. Agnes’s rector. On other days and at other times, Murphy celebrated Mass in local parishes.
Bishop John Barres’s Mass schedule is still being decided, Koenig said, noting that the new bishop has expressed a fervent desire to get out into local parishes to meet Long Island’s Catholics, much as his predecessor had done.