Check in Your Luggage and Check in With God

Our Lady of the Skies chaplain discusses his ministry at JFK airport.

Article main image

Our Lady of the Skies Chapel is a Catholic chapel located at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York.

The chapel, under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Brooklyn, was founded in 1955 by World War II veteran Bob O’Brien, who promised the Virgin Mary he would create a shrine to her if he could safely return home.

The original chapel was dismantled in 1966 to make room for a terminal expansion for British Airways. The current chapel was rebuilt at a cost of $1 million.

The chapel contains a six-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary, a small wooden altar and stained-glass windows. It’s a popular destination for weddings and for nervous travelers.

Mass is celebrated on most days. Thousands of people visit the chapel every day to pray for a safe flight.

Father Chris Piasta, chaplain of the Our Ladies of the Skies Chapel, recently spoke with the Register about his ministry.

 

Would you tell me something about the history of the chapel?

The first Our Lady of the Skies Chapel at Idlewild Airport was consecrated in 1955, at a place where Terminal 7 currently stands. The Mass, however, had been celebrated for three years before in an airport restaurant. It’s quite stunning to see pictures of a portable altar being rolled into the restaurant through the tarmac. …

The first chapel didn’t survive long. The airport was expanding, and that is why a new chapel was consecrated in 1966. It was the first air-conditioned church in the Diocese of Brooklyn. The chapel was just one part of the Tri-Faith plaza, which also had a Protestant chapel and a synagogue. All three buildings were sitting on a beautiful lagoon, right in the middle of the airport. The chaplain had living quarters next to the chapel and was quite busy, especially with many weddings, due to the chapel’s long aisle and very impressive stained-glass windows. But the second chapel existed twice as long as the first one.

At the end of 1988, all three chapels were demolished and temporarily moved into one room at the old International Arrivals Building. In May of 2001, our current Our Lady of the Skies Chapel was consecrated on the departure level of Terminal 4.

 

Please tell me about your own ministerial history.

I was ordained in 1995, and since then I have been involved in several ministries (prison ministry, campus ministry, youth ministry, children’s ministry) in more than a dozen countries. I have a very wide understanding of my ministry that includes several years in sound engineering, online applications, radio broadcasting and graphic design, especially creating church bulletins. I find my degree in communications quite helpful in everything I do.

 

How long have you been with Our Lady of the Skies Chapel?

I have been involved at Our Lady of the Skies for more than 10 years, first helping my predecessor in public relations and fundraising. … After his retirement, I was asked to take over the position, which I did in the beginning of 2010 … and added to it LaGuardia in 2013.

 

What is the average number of people in attendance at Mass every day?

The number of attendees varies greatly. Sometimes there are only a handful of people, and sometimes we have more than 70, or even 80 people, in attendance. I never know how many people to expect, due to groups that may enter the chapel at any time.

There are three distinct groups of people attending: passengers, airport employees and cabin crews. Although it seems like the Mass is some kind of indicator of faith life, I disagree. Most of what happens at airport ministry happens on foot, usually away from the chapel. I try to meet people where they are and be present for them right there. It can be said that someone who doesn’t like to walk much can’t do our job, or at least is missing most of what’s happening.

 

Are you the only chaplain there?

At JFK, there are four chaplains, representing Judaism, Islam, Protestant Christianity and Catholicism. In practice, we quite often overlap. It means that we serve all, without asking for a specific faith or denomination. Churches outside of an airport exist for their own members; at airports, all people are our “members.” I’m quite often serving Muslims, Jews and other Christians. It’s very rewarding to see how we all come together and can help each other. By the same token, whatever happens to any of the chaplaincies happens to all of us, both good and bad.

At LaGuardia Airport, I’m currently serving as the only chaplain, despite the fact we never had a chapel there. That isn’t an obstacle, although a chapel creates a focal point for the airport community, passengers and crews. I’m working right now with LaGuardia Airport authorities on getting a chapel at the newly constructed terminal.

 

Other than the Eucharist and reconciliation, has the chapel offered any other sacraments?

We provide the full range of sacraments: baptisms, first Communion and confirmation (mostly as Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), anointing of the sick, Eucharist and reconciliation. Besides that, I conduct 101 retreats and baptismal prep classes and offer spiritual direction. There are also a significant number of memorial services (mostly for airport and airline employees) and individual prayers with many people.

 

In your work as spiritual director, are there particular topics that come up, such as fear of flying?

Yes. Much of that is caused by stress or unfortunate events. There are about 36,000 employees working at JFK. They come to work with their issues that sometimes they have no time to talk to their parish priests about. It happens in many different ways: over a cup of coffee, or while walking down the concourse, meeting with me at the office, or just over text messages, day or night.

Fear of flying is not that common, but reasons for travel quite often come up: funerals, weddings, work with refugees, assignments in dangerous places, or even seafarers flying home after being released from hostage situations. Sometimes it involves death notifications upon landing or just stress about getting to the next gate or bathroom on time.

 

Are you also assigned to another parish when you’re not at the chapel?

Yes. I do have my own parish community of St. Joseph in South Jamaica, Queens, which keeps me grounded.

 

How else does the chapel serve the needs of travelers?

We don’t just serve spiritual needs. We see people holistically, with all sorts of needs, beginning with food, shelter, etc. The question is: Can we help in any way?

Due to generosity of the airport community, which supports all our efforts (we have to fundraise in order to finance our service), we are blessed not only with means that cover all our operational costs, but also some additional services, such as airline tickets, hotel accommodation, communication expenses (internet or calling/SIM cards) and scholarships open to all JFK employees and their children. Of course, we would like to give back more and not always can we meet all the needs, but we spend about $10,000-$15,000 annually on these services.

 

If you have any anecdotes about your experience with travelers at your chapel, I would love to learn about them.

The most significant was a certain individual who stayed at the airport for nine months. The scenario is very similar to Tom Hanks’ role in the Terminal movie, which ironically was filmed at JFK. He wanted to go to France, but was unable to due to the fact that he was a stateless individual, although eligible to receive French citizenship.

In those nine months, he was admitted to local hospitals a few times, received stents in his heart and countless sets of clothing. It took us quite some time and collaboration with the French Consulate and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office before he finally left and was repatriated.

Once, we had a supermodel [experiencing a] nervous breakdown in our chapel, throwing out her clothing all over the chapel.

I remember very well the volcanic ash incident in Iceland in 2010 that grounded planes flying to and from Europe. About 400 passengers formed the so-called “Camp Kennedy” right outside of our chapel. We lived right there with them, feeding them great New York bagels and cream cheese daily and bringing them fresh socks in bundles. I will never forget the generosity of JFK neighbors, as they were rolling in carts of food from BJ’s and Costco, remembering even the most specialized dietary needs of some of the passengers.

Angelo Stagnaro

writes from New York.