BAY RIDGE — The Very Rev. William Sutfin Schneirla served as pastor of St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church at 81st Street and Ridge Boulevard in Bay Ridge from its inception in 1951 until his retirement in 2002. The beloved pastor was known to his congregation simply as Father Paul, the name he took upon his ordination to the priesthood in 1942.
So it seems extremely fitting that the street will be co-named Father Paul Schneirla Way at a dedication ceremony on Saturday, June 13 at 11 a.m.
Schneirla was born on April 11, 1916 on gold-mining property owned by his family in Ophir, Alaska. His mother’s side of the family, the Sutfins, arrived in this country from Holland in 1676 and settled in what is now Bay Ridge.
He was a pioneer convert member of the clergy, author and renowned theologian with a long list of noteworthy accomplishments, including being a member of the general board of the National Council of Churches beginning in 1940.
Schneirla served as a priest of the Antiochian Archdiocese for 71 years, and was the first chair of its Department of Christian Education, dean of the Atlantic Deanery, and quite possibly closest to his heart, the first editor of The Word magazine.
His contributions to his faith within the community are legendary. In fact, Schneirla was a true force of nature who tended to his parishioners throughout his ministry and helped shape and better the lives of everyone who knew him.
St. Mary’s current pastor, the Very Reverend Michael Ellias, called Schneirla one of the most influential mentors in his life. “Like me, innumerable seminarians and theology students passed through his classes and his parish on their way to ordination and to other vocations of community service,” said Ellias.
“He freely shared his incomparable wit, deep wisdom and broad world experience with generations of ministry candidates,” he said. “It is an honor to have been assigned to succeed him both as pastor of St. Mary’s and as the Secretary of the Archdiocese.”
In 1942, Schneirla married Shirley Dillon Warriner Page and they settled in New Jersey. They had three children, Dorothy Downie, Peter Schneirla and a son Billy, who died unexpectedly of pneumonia at the age of six. Shirley was her husband’s rock and they were married 71 years before she preceded him in death.
Schneirla’s son Peter was delighted that a street would be co-named in his father’s memory. “His arrival in Brooklyn was a case study in the right place, the right time, the right people and the right man. I can think of no one more worthy than my father to be honored in this way,” Peter told this paper.
In 2007, SCOBA, the predecessor to the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America, recognized Father Paul with a resolution that cited his lengthy and extraordinary support for inter-Orthodox development and communication. He was also the Antiochian Archdiocese’s Western Rite vicar general for many years.
Schneirla was not only a clergyman and theologian, he was also a literary scholar who loved 19th and 20th century English and American literature. He was familiar with the entire canon of Henry James and his brother, philosopher and psychologist William James, and he could talk for hours about the books he loved.
Pastor emeritus of St. Mary’s Church, Schneirla helped forge the foundation of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bay Ridge by being the first pastor of St. Mary’s where he served the parish for over 50 years. In fact, St. Mary’s has had only two pastors at its current location: Schneirla, and upon his retirement, its current pastor Ellias.
Lifelong parishioner Karen Rich spoke about the impact of Schneirla’s legacy. “To rename the street in his memory would recollect to those Father Paul touched for generations his wisdom and the most noble aspirations of human character,” said Rich.
Schneirla’s daughter recalled a prophetic conversation she had with her father shortly before he died. “Once I asked Father Paul how he wanted to be remembered,” Downie explained. “He said that he just wanted to be thought of as someone who tried to do the right thing. I can attest that with his first-rate mind, a first-class temperament and buoyant sense of humor, he cheerfully gave of himself in the cause of always doing what was right.”
Downie continued. “At the end of your life, all you have left is what you’ve given to other people. With Father Paul, his influence will extend far beyond his own lifetime through the families and friends he so faithfully served.”
Schneirla died on September 20, 2014 at the age of 98 after a life well-lived. For many, Father Paul Schneirla and St. Mary’s Antiochian Church have become synonymous and a street named in his memory will only make it official.