They may come from Mexico or the Dominican Republic, speaking little but the Spanish of their native countries. Or, they may converse among themselves in the French they learned in the African nations of their birth, in the French/Creole of their Haitian heritage or, if they’re African-American, in English.
But at St. Catherine of Genoa, a melting pot of a parish in the Hamilton Heights section of northern Manhattan, the parishioners are a family, no matter what their background.
“I don’t even know the variety of the languages,” said Msgr. Kenneth Smith, the pastor for the past seven-and-a-half years.
“What I would say is that we’ve been able, through our religious education program and the parish societies, to bring a measure of integration” among the different groups, he said.
Founded in 1887, the parish is celebrating its 125th anniversary with events including a parish dinner Oct. 13 and a Mass offered by Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Walsh, vicar for clergy, the following day.
In its 125 years, the parish has seen a lot of ups and downs in Hamilton Heights, an area steeped in early American history and New York cultural markers.
U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton lived there in the last two years of his life, hence the area’s name, and Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” is one of many notables buried in the neighborhood’s Trinity Cemetery.
In the 20th century, the baseball and football Giants played their home games in the fabled Polo Grounds, and in the 1920s the city’s wealthy African-Americans began settling in the elegant townhouses of Sugar Hill.
“The architecture is some of the most exquisite around,” Msgr. Smith said.
Beginning in the 1960s, however, the area went into decline due to crime and drugs—an especially bad problem in the 1970s and 1980s—but in recent years it has experienced a revival.
At St. Catherine of Genoa, most of the working class and lower-income parishioners live in the many small apartment buildings in the neighborhood or in one of the two public housing projects.
When it was established, St. Catherine of Genoa was carved out of Annunciation parish to the south and St. Elizabeth’s to the north. It was named for St. Catharine of Genoa (with the spelling later changed to Catherine) on the 150th anniversary of her canonization.
Masses were celebrated in a local theater for the first two years, until a church was built at 504 W. 153rd St. The arrangement was meant to be temporary, with a new church to be built and the first church converted to a school. That plan was dropped, however, and that first church is still in use.
“It has air conditioning now,” Msgr. Smith quipped.
Two years after the parish was founded, the Sisters of Mercy opened St. Catherine’s Academy on West 152nd Street at the invitation of the first pastor, Father Edward Slattery. The academy remained there until 1953, when it moved to the Northeast Bronx, where it continues as a girls high school.
The parish school of St. Catherine of Genoa, run by the Sisters of Mercy, opened in 1910; an expansion school known as the Annex opened in 1938. In 1946, all classes were consolidated in the Annex and the original school became Bishop Dubois High School, which closed in 1976.
In 2006, the parish school also closed, an occurrence the pastor called “a sad event in the history of our parish.”
Today’s young people are well served, with four active youth groups and a religious education program, under the direction of Angelina Soriano, which enrolls 160.
St. Catherine of Genoa’s original parishioners were mainly Irish immigrants and their children. African-Americans arrived in large numbers in the 1950s, followed in the 1960s by Puerto Ricans and then by Dominicans. Haitians were a sizable group by the 1990s, and most recently there’s been a major influx of Mexicans.
About 1,200 people attend the six weekend Masses celebrated in English, Spanish, French and Haitian/Creole. Assisting the pastor is a parochial vicar, Father Thelemaque Florvil.
Parish groups include prayer groups in Spanish and Creole, a large Cursillista group, Rosary and altar server societies, the Legion of Mary, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Bible study in English and Spanish, the University Students Group, the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Society and French classes.
Also, a citizenship program run by Nigerian-born immigration lawyer Dana Isiadinso has helped many parishioners gain U.S. citizenship in the last four years.
Finally, the parish sponsors an annual street festival on West 153rd Street in honor of its patroness, St. Catherine of Genoa, on a Sunday in late July—a popular event that unites the people of the parish and raises funds for its activities.
It’s one of the ways, that “our dynamic, multi-cultural parish continues to serve the spiritual, civic and cultural needs of its parishioners,” the pastor said, adding, “May our Lord grant us another 125 years of service here in Hamilton Heights.”