Coney Island lost an angel and heaven gained one on Thursday. Pastor Debbe Santiago, who founded Coney’s Salt and Sea Mission over 30 years ago, passed away after battling cancer. The wake will be on Thursday, February 11, from 12pm- 5pm, followed by a funeral service from 5pm -6pm at the Salt and Sea Mission, located at 2417 Stillwell Avenue. A memorial service will be held at MCU Park, 1904 Surf Avenue from 6-7pm.
Pastor Debbe’s experience as a former homeless drug addict who turned her life around after reading the Bible gave her deep empathy and compassion for all.
“Debbe Santiago was a saint who helped the helpless, fed the hungry, protected at-risk children, and ministered to the downtrodden of Coney Island,” wrote Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson, who posted video clips of a sermon at the mission that he filmed. In the intro, Santiago explains that Salt was for salt of the earth, and Sea was for Coney Island’s sea. “Sea also refers in the Book of Revelations to the masses, and we have masses of needy people in Coney Island.”
Every Palm Sunday for the past 30 years, Pastor Debbe has officiated at the Blessing of the Rides at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park on Coney’s Opening Day. The ceremony consists of a prayer of invocation as well as the Fire Department Color Guard, speeches by elected officials and a ribbon cutting, followed by free rides, toys and Easter bags for children from the Salt and Sea Mission.
In the following video recorded at the 2015 ceremony, Santiago explains how the annual tradition got started. She asked Deno Vourderis, the park’s founder, if she could bring some kids from the Mission to ride the rides. “And he asked if I had 500,” she says.
This year, Coney Island’s Palm Sunday opener will be on March 20th. “The Vourderis family is deeply saddened by the loss of our lifelong friend Debbe Santiago,” said Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park co-owner Dennis Vourderis in a statement. “She will be missed, and we know she will be watching over all of Coney Island because that’s where her love lived and benefited us all.”
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