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A New Priest Strives to Protect His Church’s Independence

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November 22, 2022

By Barrett Seaman—

A new face behind the pulpit and some new faces in the pews—some of them Black or Brown—are giving the Church of the Magdalene in Pocantico Hills renewed hope for its future as an independent Roman Catholic parish.

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Since celebrating its 125th anniversary in November 2019, the threat of change has been in the air at the Magdalene, as its parishioners call their spiritual home (see https://thehudsonindependent.com/church-of-the-magdalene-celebrates-its-125th-year-anniversary/).

Within months of that triumphant occasion, at which Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York presided, the pandemic hit. As with all houses of worship, the Magdalene’s congregants huddled in their homes on Sundays, instead of in the polished wood pews of the elegant church. And as many houses of worship did in order to stay connected with their flock, the church began livestreaming its services.

The livestreaming worked, says David Impastato, the church’s Parish Council President. More than 100 households, out of a pre-pandemic population of about 550, are logging on each Sunday. Remote worship has been a particular blessing for older parishioners, who over the years have been making up a larger share of the congregation. Post-pandemic, it will remain a regular feature.

There were other elements of uncertainty. Father John Vigilanti, the parish priest since 2016 was due to retire in 2022. Though the church was doing well enough financially, weekly collections had fallen $1,000 below pre-pandemic levels.

Most of the uncertainty, however, came from beyond Pocantico Hills. The population of Catholics in the U.S., while holding steady overall, has been moving geographically south- and westward. Culturally, parishes are shifting from traditionally concentrated ethnic (Irish, Italian, Hispanic) congregations and becoming more diverse, sometimes testing their cohesiveness.

Most importantly, the number of priests has been diminishing. Dioceses, including New York’s, are now hard-pressed to provide pastors for all their ministries. The result has been retrenchments—closing of parishes, mergers and reassignments. However full a parish’s coffers might be, and however loyal its congregants, the future of any given church may well depend on whether it can keep its own parish priest.

At the Magdalene, rumors have persisted for some time that the Diocese was considering closing the parish or merging it with another—an ironic prospect, given the church’s history. Originally created to serve Catholics who worked for the Rockefeller family, the Magdalene was viewed as a satellite to the larger St. Teresa of Avila in nearby Sleepy Hollow (then North Tarrytown). But as the area surrounding the hamlet grew more diverse, the Magdalene gained its independence. Then, just as the church was coming out of the pandemic, that independence was threatened. Well after the fact, Ed Sudol, a former member of the parish council, learned that the Diocese was considering closing the Magdalene or merging it with either St. Teresa’s, a largely Hispanic congregation in Sleepy Hollow, or alternatively a church in Hawthorne.

At the end of this past June, Father Vigilanti retired. Less than a month before his departure, parishioners still didn’t know who their new pastor would be—or even if there would be one. Writing in the church newsletter on June 7th, Father Vigilanti candidly confessed that he did not know who would replace him. “In my 50 years of priesthood,” he wrote, “I have never seen such poor coordination between the diocese, its parishes, and its priests.”

The diocese came through, however, dispatching the Reverend Timothy S. A. Wiggins to lead the Magdalene’s flock. Fr. Wiggins, an imposing 6’ 3” 59-year-old African American, is a 4th generation native of Port Chester who was raised as a Methodist before converting to Catholicism. A graduate of Denver University’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, he spent 15 years in “contract feeding,” hospitality industry jargon for institutional dining management, before committing to the priesthood.

Unlike many Protestant denominations that choose their spiritual leaders, the Catholic Church simply assigns priests to churches or other ministries. After his ordination in 2002, Fr. Wiggins found himself fortunate to be assigned largely to parishes in Westchester. He spent 10 years at St. John the Evangelist in White Plains, six years teaching at Archbishop Stepinac High School and as an administrator at both Our Lady of Mercy in his hometown of Port Chester and Our Lady of Sorrows in White Plains. His first post as head of a parish was at St. Charles Borromeo, a large—and largely Black congregation—in Harlem. He served there for only a year before being re-assigned to Pocantico Hills.

The Magdalene has long drawn members from beyond this tiny Hamlet. Its parish address list boasts up to 15 zip codes. With his ties to so many other parishes in the county, Fr. Wiggins is adding to that, with followers from Port Chester, Harlem and White Plains, many of them of color, coming to his services in Pocantico Hills. From a pre-pandemic 550 registered families, the church now lists 650 families. “Since I’ve been here,” he says, “we’ve taken in almost 30 new families.”

Fr. Tim accepts the elements at his installation service, Sept. 25, 2022

Not only is growth healthy for a parish, it brings greater protection from closure or merger at the hands of the mother church. “I am telling my council members, ‘Let’s have a very active, faith-based community, spiritually, socially, culturally,’” says Fr. Wiggins. His formula for survival: more activity, more families, more baptisms and, to the extent possible, fewer funerals.

Attendance, which is not the same as affiliation, has been climbing—“especially over the last three or four weeks, when we’ve been hitting the hundred mark in almost all out masses,” he says. “Before, we were averaging about 75.”

Though he was installed only in September, Fr. Wiggins already feels a bond with the Magdalene. “I am very, very protective of this place,” he says. “It is important to bring in new families, register them as members of the parish and grow the place. If we can do that, then [there is] less of a challenge to stay open.”

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