The founder of the Church of Our Lady of Peace was Father Philip Leone. He served as pastor from 1918 until his death in 1945. In the photograph above, he is seated to the left of two nuns in the center. This was the First Communion class of 1920, and the children and grandchildren of those children, will gather tomorrow to celebrate Founders' Day in remembrance.
Filippo Leone was born in Prizzi, Palermo Province in Sicily, Italy, on 11 January 1879. His father Benedetto Leone was a shoemaker; his mother, Francesca Pecoraro, a housewife. As the second son, he was named in the Italian tradition for his maternal grandfather, Filippo. He attended the University of Rome and was ordained in 1903.
Father Leone immigrated to the United States in 1905, following his older brother Domenico, who resided at 537 West 59th Street in Manhattan. (See Line 17 of Ship Manifest)
Father Leone was assigned to other parishes in New York before he established the parish of Madonna della Pace, named for the peace that followed the First World War. Assigned the task of founding a new parish, he appealed to its future members for donations. He appealed to Italians living in the old country and his Irish-American friends living in the city.
Like most men in 1918, Father Leone was required to register for military service. His World War I registration card shows him working at 321 East 61st Street, the site of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a church originally built for Czech immigrants, which was demolished in 1998. The Italian parishioners of Our Lady of Peace worshipped in the basement of that church, until they could find a church of their own. It was Father Leone who purchased the church on East 62nd Street that became the Church Our Lady of Peace in 1919.
Father Leone returned to Prizzi to visit his mother in 1922 and tour parts of Europe. He applied for a passport for the first time.
By 1923, Our Lady of Peace had really grown. Father Leone gave a full accounting of the nationalities of people involved in the church and the majority were of Italian descent. There were 5 masses held every Sunday, which drew about 1,200 parishioners of which about 200 were not Italian. He also noted that nearly all of the children attending Sunday school were of Italian descent, except for 3 Germans, 2 Polish, 3 Hungarian, 3 African-Americans, and 4 Irish.
On April 4, 1929, Rev. Leone submitted a request to the Archbishop of New York for the Church of Our Lady of Peace to be established as the "Pious Union of St. Joseph's Death" in affiliation with the Primary in Rome -- its purpose: to assist the dying and pray for the dead. On May 24th, he received a response from the Archbishop granting his request.
It is fitting that Founders' Day will begin with a Holy Procession through the neighborhood that is now landmarked, the Treadwell Farm Historic District. Descendants of the original benefactors will be present to celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the church, which took place in April 1919. Although those families traverses 4 generations in time, they are united in a common goal: to save Father Philip Leone's legacy and their spiritual home.
Many details of the early years of the Church of Our Lady of Peace presented here are documented in a special report, The Church of Our Lady of Peace Historic Architectural Investigation, prepared by preservationist Gregory Dietrich for the Friends of Our Lady of Peace.