Trade Winds Raise Red Flags in Cutchogue

Written By: Randy O'Neill

Holy Cow!

My North Fork church’s pastor got traded from Cutchogue to Glen Head for a pastor to be named later!

Our multi-talented “utility” player’s versatility and stamina, despite a nasty bout with pneumonia which had led to two stints on the disabled list in 2012, will be sorely missed as the small rural parish he leaves behind looks to regain its footing with new unknown leadership from the far-off Western league.

While it’s reluctantly recognized in the baseball world that permanence and consistency have gone the way of Sunday doubleheaders and complete games by starting pitchers, it was always believed in the religious realm that you could take comfort in the knowledge that your local church’s spiritual leader would take his turn in the rotation and be at the hometown pulpit every Sunday morning. Not so anymore at Our Lady of Ostrabrama, R.C. church on Depot Lane in Cutchogue. On Easter Sunday, the palpable joy of the day was instantly dashed when Pastor Marian Bicz announced in his strong Polish accent that he had been transferred to a Catholic parish in Glen Head and would be leaving the North Fork for western parts on or before June 1st. His all-too-brief tenure in Cutchogue was anything but uneventful.

The well-respected ‘Father Marian’ shepherded his diverse roster of parishioners through boom and bust times since arriving on the East End in 2007. From the last painful years of his beloved Polish compatriot John Paul’s papal reign and a winning-streak-riding North Fork economy, through Pope Benedict’s retirement shortened, scandal-wracked seasons in the midst of a punishing recession, the unflappable “Father Marian” used his pulpit platform and booming voice to reassure his wobbling faithful to stay the course, reminding all that refuge could always be found inside the walls of their blonde brick stadium surrounded by vineyards and potato fields.

Unfathomably, the diocesan authorities at league headquarters in distant Rockville Centre decided it was time for a managerial change. It was time to swap a highly respected, hands-on bilingual pastor from a predominantly Polish area of Long Island’s East End, to the suburban North Shore enclave of Glen Head where kielbasa and pierogies are as rare as perfect games. His replacement’s name and background are still as elusive as a dancing knuckleball.

Indeed a strange way to foster fan/parishioner loyalty.

Quite frankly, many of my fellow parishioners’ concerns and confusion have little to do with bureaucratic decisions and church policy, but everything to do with, for lack of a more descriptive term, fan loyalty. In small town parish communities like Cutchogue, familiarity does not breed contempt, but comfort. Comfort bolstered by consistency of message and mission of not just church teachings, but the leadership skills of its on field manager, the parish pastor. As a product of 12 years of my denomination’s farm system… Catholic school education from the late 1950’s through the 1960s… I very clearly understood (and remember) the message being delivered by the nuns of Single A grammar school and the unbending but never boring Jesuit priests and scholastics of Double A high school. It was very comforting to know that, in their world, consistency was indeed a virtue. Perhaps that had a little something to do with the fact that church services were always SRO on game day.

Fast forward to Cutchogue circa 2007 when very often the church on Sunday morning looked like CitiField in late August with Mass attendees cleverly disguised as church pews. Father Marian, through power of personality and consistency of a positive message, gradually turned those empty pews and Sunday services into a modest but enthusiastic crowd of hard praying, hymn singing, sacrament receiving paying customers. And not just customers, but the prize of all teams….repeat customers. And he accomplished this feat the old-fashioned way, he earned it every day. Understanding that, while not as dramatic, three well-placed singles produce the same or better result as a 500’ solo home run. From literally turning on the church’s lights and lighting the altar’s candles, to delivering a well-constructed weekly homily/pep talk with a touch of humor in his heavily accented English, you knew he was less about pomp and circumstance and more about delivering the “good news” one Mass at a time.

Indeed, a winning formula.

Now as our beloved pastor completes his six-year tenure, packs his bags and readies for his trek west in June, his hard-won, “we’ll run through the wall for you” roster in Cutchogue are left to wonder why.

Why in a time of apathy and dwindling interest in all things church-related, has management concluded that it’s a good idea to rip the collective soul out of its comeback-minded North Fork team?

Sadly, I’ve been to this strange game before. Or as that pinstriped Yankee sage would say: It’s déjà vu all over again.

In 2002, the administrators of the Brooklyn Diocese made perhaps an even more startling in-season blockbuster trade …with predictably negative customer service consequences.

In that case, the longtime pastor of my childhood parish in Rockaway’s Belle Harbor community was abruptly transferred from a parish that was still reeling from the dozens of the September 11th funerals he conducted, followed in short order by a horrific plane crash that killed almost 300 passengers and several more local residents in their homes one block away from the church. When grief, anger and loss of faith were on a winning streak and “why us” was the closely-knit neighborhood’s sad chant, Monsignor Geraghty was the rock that helped his traumatized flock survive the back-to-back tragedies and slowly move sorrowfully, but steadily, forward. His reward? Being dispatched to a remote parish in far-off northeastern Queens.

Not surprisingly, many angry parishioners cast their disgruntled vote with their feet and wallets, and a once vibrant seaside church community slipped into a downward spiral from which it has never really recovered.

So that’s the score from both ends of our fish-shaped island, and sadly there’s no ‘happy re-cap’ to wrap up this game. Rather, there is only dismay at bureaucratically-inspired personnel decisions that have resulted in severely wounding a once flourishing church on our Island’s western end and, just over 10 years later, placing another in the North Fork in a disrupted season of disillusionment and anger that generally doesn’t bode well for a happy ending.

While church policy has its place, rigidity and callous disregard for its loyal paying customers will do little to fill the pews on Depot Lane in Cutchogue or on Rockaway Beach Boulevard in Belle Harbor or any other parish that values the leadership and reassuring message of its admired leader.

Decisions like these can only be viewed as major game changers that only drive the hometown fans to the sidelines.