VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — For a kid, life in this blue-collar village in Nassau County, Long Island, was pretty good. Family bonds, grounded in the Catholic faith, were strong.
Although it sits a mere six miles from the busy runways of John F. Kennedy International Airport in nearby Queens, Valley Stream has an easy-going, dense suburban feel and affords quick access to the south shore beaches that have long been a draw for residents and visitors alike.
Growing up in the neighborhood around Holy Name of Mary Church, where the future bishop received his sacraments, attending its parish grammar school was a joy for the young Richard Garth Henning, who was born on October 17, 1964, in nearby Rockville Centre. The oldest of five children born to Richard and Maureen Henning, Richard, his siblings and their friends ruled the streets — that is until a car needed to pass by — and they promptly resumed their activities once it did.
“It was fun, it was a good childhood,” said Maureen (Henning) Brennan, her mother’s namesake, who is the middle child of the five, with the birth order being Richard, Cathy, Maureen, Tara and Robert.
Their modest home, in a densely populated neighborhood, was supported by their father’s salary as a New York City firefighter and their mother’s as a baby nurse at New York Foundling Hospital, until she became a stay-at-home mom as the family began to grow.
After school and in the summers, Richard, the future auxiliary bishop of the Rockville Centre Catholic Diocese, along with his siblings and friends would enjoy much time spent playing outdoors.
“We used to run and play games in the street like Kick the Can and Manhunt,” Maureen said. “When a car came by, we’d just get out of the way and then go right back. It was fun, it was a good childhood. We had a great family life.”
Maureen remembers her older brother being something of a building designer. He always seemed to be drawing design concepts for buildings and structures, she recalled. In the winter, he reveled in building forts in the snow.
“He could have been an architect,” she smiled, extolling his abilities.
But she and her family took notice early on that her big brother had a higher calling.
While she remembers him then as being very funny, as he remains still now, she says, he would become very serious when it came to celebrating Christmas traditions.
“Every Christmas, before we could open any presents, we had to say a prayer to Baby Jesus in the Nativity scene,” she smiled.
“We were not allowed to touch or even look at the toys until we went over to the nativity scene and said a prayer.”
In January, in the days before moving to Rhode Island, the new coadjutor bishop of Providence provided Rhode Island Catholic with a weekend tour of the area where he grew up in Valley Stream, as well as other places on Long Island that hold special significance to him in his life.
In addition to his “Beach Catholic Long Island” sticker to the right of his New York license plate on the back of the Subaru, Bishop Henning had already added a brand-new oval, European-style car magnet emblazoned with “RI Rhode Island” in black block lettering in preparation for his move to the Ocean State. At the center near the plate is an image of the Blessed Mother.
Growing up at 19 South Cottage St., the Henning children had only about a three-block walk to Holy Name of Mary School, with the Holy Name of Mary Church, were they worshipped, across the street.
Holy Name of Mary Church doubled in size when he was a child as rules at the time prevented a church from being razed to build a newer one. So, a secondary aisle and pews were added on a diagonal line to the original structure, with both aisles facing the altar.
During a visit to the interior of the church, Bishop Henning pointed to the large window of the “crying room” in which he, as the oldest child in his family, attended many Masses while his parents soothed his younger siblings.
While he did have to sit behind the glass, the position of the crying room not far from the altar provided him with an unobstructed close view of the Mass.
“It was like having a front row seat at the Mass,” Bishop Henning remembered.
Nearby is the house where his grandfather grew up. His paternal grandfather was a U.S. Postal Service carrier, and his grandmother was a grammar school teacher.
In addition to their father’s service as a New York City firefighter, Richard Henning also volunteered as a firefighter in Valley Stream. The quaint village firehouse served as the setting for the Holy Name of Mary’s first Mass in the 1890s.
The firehouse was the scene of merriment for local families when the firefighters would host Christmas parties for the kids.
The structure had a religious history as well.
“The priest would come from Jamaica (Queens) by horseback, and he would celebrate Mass on the second floor of this firehouse,” Bishop Richard Henning said as he stopped his olive green Subaru Outback across the street for a closer look.
In the summer, the Hennings, like many of their friends and neighbors, became what is known locally as “boat people,” those who would take to the local waters in small pleasure craft.
A favorite destination was, and still is, Oak Island, a small island on the Great South Bay, where it is a rite of passage for families to take a small boat across a few hundred feet into the oasis of relaxation.
While it is not tied to the electric grid, and has no access to a public water supply, no restaurants or even trash pickup, the island affords a respite from an eternally busy world.
The Henning family patriarch purchased a small cottage on West Fire Island that needed to be moved for a mere $264 decades ago. He arranged for it to be placed on a barge and towed to Oak Island, where it still stands today and provides a relaxing gathering place for the Henning family and their friends and neighbors.
It’s a place where Bishop Henning enjoys visiting whenever he can, catching up with family and their friends as they paddleboard and kayak by day, and grill dinner and sit by a fire to share quality time together at night.
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