I can think of no better way to kick off this segment than to offer you St. Jude's " official words " on the subject. This press release appears in countless publications whenever the history of the church is discussed.
As stated in the church press release, Father John Skelly started out by renting the Knapp Mansion for use as a rectory. He must have noticed he had room to spare in there. A man of vision and great persuasion he had big plans for it if he could somehow convince Bishop Molloy to purchase it. But who even knew if the new owner, George Sutter wanted to sell it? Perhaps Fr. Skelly came up with the idea while meditating in the grand ballroom under one of the paintings the Knapp's left behind or while pacing one of the 2nd story terraces on the east or west wing. Whatever happened, by May 4th of 1950 ( my brother Butchie's 7th birthday) the current owner George Sutter was signing on the dotted line and conveying the Deed to the mansion to The Diocese Of Brooklyn. The price... $15,000.00 placed in a trust fund by the Diocese. A pretty good price for a place that was only around 30 years old and had the best of everything in it including furnishings. If Home Guardian had paid over $55,000.00 for it * they certainly didn't it sell it to George Sutter 8 days later for less than that. So as rumour always had it in Mastic Beach, The Knapp Mansion was a gift to the church....it just wasn't a gift from the Knapp's, who by the way were Methodist.
*They didn't...$55,000 was the mortgage for the property around the mansion that became sections 9 & 10 ...To see what the mansion on 3.5 acres sold for in 1940 click here
Unable to contain his joy Fr. Skelly announced his big plans in March of 1950 two months before George Sutter's pen hit the paper. He wanted to make a school out of it, and build an auditorium parish / community center open to all in the backyard. In April at a meeting of the Mastic Beach Property Owners someone who remained un identified voiced their opposition by saying it would "Lower their property values" ( ????) and that the kids going to school there would cause damage to the neighborhood (?????) Who was this GUY? and what was he thinking? The Moriches Tribune ran the story in April of 1950.
Well the opposition must of been very minor, because 1 week later the paper printed this
George Sutter signed on the bottom line 8 days later making it official and Fr Skelly had himself a rectory, parish house, community center, and future school house all combined. Big plans were drawn up, the Brooklyn architecual firm of Beatty and Berlenbach who had designed numerous church projects were called in. And on very cool for June afternoon, the Fr Skelly and 30 other clergyman, some alter boys and 50 or so of the faithful flock broke ground out near the garage in back of the mansion. Bishop Molloy of Brooklyn was not able to attend, however the Bishop Of Reno NV came marching in and a splendid time was had by all.
There was a whole lot of enthusiasm for this project and Father Skelly wasted no time getting the ball rolling. Donations started rolling in and within 5 weeks St. Jude's had raised $58,000.00. It was announced that the auditorium construction would start any time and that the upstairs of the Knapp Mansion was going to be used to house the Nuns that would teach in the four classrooms downstairs. With the huge kitchen they already had, school lunches and catering to the auditorium out in the back yard would be no problem. All types of events took place in the Knapp Ballroom that first year or two. Besides parish activities like the Rosary Society there were card parties, classical music concerts, and in keeping with his vision to make the parish center totally non denominational Fr Skelly invited civic groups to make use of it. I know for certain that the Girl Scouts did as my sister belonged to the troop and she used to tell us all about the neat things that were in the ballroom. They even held field day events on the property.
But somewhere between the summer of 1950 and July of 1952 something happened. Something St. Jude's never wanted to talk about for on July of 1952 they had their grand opening of the new $160,000.00 youth center auditorium and guess what? It was not built on the mansion property and no explanation was ever offered. The fact that it had to take X amount of months to construct on an alternate site across the street from the church and the local papers never mentioned a word about it was more than odd. There were no progress photos of it going up, even though it rose up on Neighborhood road, the main drag through town. These are papers that print a story if your Aunt Tillie thrice removed on your cousins side came for tea on Sunday. So why no story of a change of plans?
Adding to the surrealness of it all was the grand opening announcements in all the papers that showed the original architects drawing of the auditorium with the Knapp Mansion right behind it. Again no mention ever, anyplace of why they moved away. I'm sure some of the church members who were on the various building and fund raising committees know the answer, but most are deceased now and nobody else is saying anything... especially the Diocese and St. Jude's current residents.
I'm not sure how long after the auditorioum opened that St.Jude's bailed out of the mansion. I seem to think I was either in the second or third grade which would of been '53 or '54 when I heard the stories about everyone helping themselves to all sorts of furnishings and antiques and sporting goods etc. I know those stories didn't last long and I'm sure the place was cleaned out in less than a week or two. The most amazing thing I overheard was, that the place was left wide open, almost as if they wanted people to clean it out. Well not only did they clean it out but the older and braver kids started going in it and it probably wasn't very long before some idiot threw the first stone.
Adolph Almasy is an old school friend and former band member of mine who lived directly behind the north side of it on LaCrosse Dr. His parents were very active members of St. Judes and his father sort of took it upon himself to police it when he could. He boarded up the entrances several times, but the kids could not be stopped. I know when we first were brave enough to go in it, the doors had boards nailed over them, but the windows were broken out so you just stepped into the porch window and you were inside. For a room to room tour of what it looked like then click here
His Dad was also the one who told him about the tunnel between the kitchen and the garage. He went through it with another active church member Pat Macnamara. They never said if they found anything of interest in it.
Even though I was Officer Charlie Ratigan's prime suspect as the one who set it on fire and cleared the same day, the one I still feel sorry for was Dennis Lasko. Dennis was a true fire bug, who was caught after he tried to burn down half of Mastic Beach during those years. Though he did burn down Fischers Market, St. Andrews church, the dress factory, the dry cleaners , several houses and acres of woods, it was too easy to pin this arson on him. I know he was sent to a mental hospital for help, but if he had to spend one extra day there for burning down the Knapp Mansion it would be one day too many. For just like the assumption that The Knapp's gave the Mansion to St. Jude's , the assumption that "Lasko Did It" is wrong. I now know who did it, but after almost 42 years, what's a little more time to reveal the truth? Besides I'm going to use it to unlock a few more mysteries.