When Pope Francis visits the school Our Lady Queen of Angels, in the heart of New York City’s East Harlem, he will see an inner city institution that, after reinvention, is thriving. Longtime residents pray he will look just past the school to also see the beautiful, yet tragic, story of faith and community rooted in the adjacent church that closed eight years ago.
“I hope he will answer our prayers,” said Maria Marte, expressing her desire that the pontiff will reinstate her beloved parish, also called Our Lady Queen of Angels. “I have faith that he will.”
In 2007, that church was one of 21 that closed or were consolidated in the state of New York, a move that representatives of the Archdiocese attributed to adjustments to demographic shifts.
The area has seen an outflow of the Puerto Rican community and an influx of Mexicans and Dominicans. Alongside the immigrant influx came gentrification and higher rents — the neighborhood houses of worship are as diverse as the community.
Within a four-block radius of Our Lady Queen of Angels, there are 12 places for worship; only two are Roman Catholic, the rest represent denominations such as Pentecostal and Baptist.
The shuttered Our Lady Queen of Angels is nestled on a cul-de-sac surrounded by the Jefferson Housing Project. Many of the buildings open into small plazas, such as the one in which Marte was sitting, giving the broad expanse of looming buildings the feel of a small and protected town.
When they heard their church was being threatened, East Harlem residents did not take the news lightly. They picketed. They held vigils. They appealed to the Vatican.
Ultimately, when it seemed the Archdiocese was changing the locks on the church doors, about two dozen congregants moved their sidewalk vigil into the church. The police moved in and arrested six of the protestors-- including Marte.
“They think we’re going to get tired,” Carmen Villegas told the Daily News in 2007. “But we’re going to keep up the fight.”
Villegas was right. Since the early days of their sidewalk protest vigil, the congregants meet every Sunday and on holidays on the benches in the plaza. They tried to establish a weekly Mass there, but reportedly they couldn’t find a priest to disobey the church’s closing.
So they pray outdoors in sweltering summer heat and frigidly cold winters — except for Marte and others whose knees cannot stand the cold weather. One way or another, the act that began as a protest against their church’s closing became their routine Sunday service.
When Villegas died in 2013, her funeral was held on the steps of the church — the Archdiocese denied a plea to open the doors one last time for her. She was the second congregant to have a memorial outside of the church.
Marte said acts like that made it felt as though the Archdiocese was cold toward them. She, in turn, feels cold toward the Archdiocese. But she has never lost her Catholic faith — besides praying on Sundays, she takes communion from the nuns and when the weather is cold she goes to another church.
And now, after so many years of their prayers going unanswered, Pope Francis appeared like a beacon.
“When they closed the church, a part of me died,” said Marte, who also cleaned the church for 36 years as a service to the community.
At a press conference about the pope’s visit to the school, a reporter asked whether those like Marte who remained devoted to the church would be invited to see him.
“This is primarily a school-focused event,” said Superintendent Timothy McNiff, who added that the public will be able to see the pope for vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral or when he celebrates Mass at Madison Square Garden.
Still, Marte holds out hope she can catch a glimpse of the one man who can save her beloved church. Welling up with tears, she said she would kiss Pope Francis’ sandals out of devotion. And, if he permitted, convey one message.
“This is my church,” she said. “This is my family and my community. Nothing can change that.”