Feature Story

'We Love This Church'

St. Roch's marks 100 years serving poor community that's 'rich spiritually'

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There aren't too many churches in 1999 where someone rings a real bell by actually pulling a rope, but it happens at St. Roch's in the Bronx. Father Francisco Oviedo, O.A.R., administrator, is the bell-ringer, calling the faithful to prayer before Sunday morning Mass.

New arrivals in the neighborhood come to St. Roch's, which is somewhat removed from busy East 149th Street, probably "because they hear the bell," Father Oviedo told CNY.

The parish celebrated its 100th anniversary with a Mass in English for former parishioners Sept. 4. Auxiliary Bishop Francisco Garmendia, vicar of the South Bronx and pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish, celebrated Mass in Spanish for current parishioners Oct. 9.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the presence of the Augustinian Recollects. Father Oviedo is the only priest there now. He lives with his Augustinian brothers at St. Anselm's Church on Tinton Avenue.

At the Mass for former parishioners, he invited 70 people to renew the baptismal promises and marriage vows they had made in the church years before. "They worked hard to keep the church alive," he said.

They came back to admire once again the elegant European bell tower and rich stained-glass windows of St. Roch's. Giovina Del Franco of Rye, who was back for the first time in 35 years, only regretted that she did not meet more current parishioners. The few on hand were "so warmhearted and cheerful" and treated the guests "royally," she told CNY.

She noted that the church interior is "so well-kept and clean," but that outside she could tell that work needs to be done.

"It's a pity we can't repair the church. It's like a landmark," said Father Oviedo, explaining that most parishioners have low incomes. He said the sidewalk, main doors, floors and tower are in need of repair or replacement.

Also present at the Mass was Irene Fatica, a niece of Msgr. Ignatius Cirelli, the third pastor, who built the church at the present location, 525 Wales Ave. Miss Fatica wanted to see the room in the rectory where her uncle died. Converted into a chapel in the 1980s, when the Lumen Dei Sisters lived there and conducted retreats, it is now used for weekday Mass. Miss Fatica said she was "thrilled," especially since she also has visited the priest's birthplace in Italy. His bedroom there, coincidentally, is now a convent chapel.

St. Roch's was founded in 1899 as a national parish, serving Italian immigrants. The first pastor was Father John Milo, and the original community worshiped in a small, wood frame, former Lutheran church at Jackson Avenue and 150th Street. The church Msgr. Cirelli built was dedicated, appropriately, on Columbus Day in 1932.

Msgr. Cirelli was a playwright as well as a builder and wrote a Passion play that parishioners produced for years. "It was quite a piece of work and quite a cast," Miss Del Franco recalled. "People came from far and wide to see it."

By the 1970s, the Italian community in Mott Haven had been largely supplanted by Puerto Ricans and immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico. Father George A. Giammarino, who died last year, was the last archdiocesan priest to serve as pastor, from 1968 to 1974. Care of the parish was transferred that year to the Augustinian Recollect province of St. Nicholas of Tolentine, based in Madrid, Spain.

The Augustinian Recollects came at a time when many buildings in the Bronx had been abandoned or burned out. The first Augustinian pastor was Father Gregorio Garcia, O.A.R., 1974 to 1976, who now serves in Spain. He was succeeded by Fathers Angelsan Ufrasio, O.A.R., 1976 to 1979, and Patrick O'Hagan, O.A.R., 1979 to 1985, both now in England.

From 1985 to 1992, Father Andres Alava, O.A.R., now in the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M., was administrator of St. Roch's while serving as pastor of St. Anselm's. With low attendance, St. Roch's was made a mission of St. Anselm's, but returned to parish status in 1992, when Father Ignacio Basterra, O.A.R., became pastor. He died unexpectedly in 1995, and Father Oviedo, a native of Burgos, Spain, has served since then.

Mass attendance is on the upswing, and now close to 300 people attend the three weekend Masses, two of which are in Spanish. The immigrants keep the faith they bring with them, despite challenges to that faith that come with having to work long hours and not having as much time with their families, Father Oviedo said.

An evangelization cell meets weekly to study the Gospel and Church documents on the new evangelization and the role of the laity. Members also visit the parents of children in the first year of religious education to remind them that their part in teaching the faith to their kids is crucial. "They have to live the faith to be an example to them," Father Oviedo said.

"We have a lot of people who care about the church," said Mary Juarbe, who has been in the parish 30 years and is now parish council chairwoman. "Even though it's a small parish, we've always been there. Even if people are in need, they give what they can, even if it's their time. And we have been blessed with the priests."

Things have improved in the area too. New homes are being built on many empty lots, including one near the church. Behind the church is a new 40-bed residence for mentally ill homeless persons with histories of drug addiction. There is now more light at night and better security, preventing strangers from breaking into the church on that side.

St. Roch's and other area parishes will benefit when four nuns from Mexico move here in January. They will visit homes, teach religion and help address problems among Mexicans and other immigrants. Many immigrants are working without a visa and afraid to make their presence known, Father Oviedo said, so it's difficult to help them.

There is no parish school, but the rectory is largely given over to the parish religious education program, directed by Ramonita Ortiz. About a dozen teachers give instruction in English to about 100 children in grades two through seven and several adults.

"It's hard for some of the kids here," said Jeanette Guzman, a leader of the parish youth group. "They see the good and the bad out on the street, and for them to get religious education here is a good thing. It makes them think, 'I have to do the right thing.' "

Parish societies include Cursillo, whose members actively serve the Church in a variety of ways, and the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, who take care of the church, visit the sick and meet monthly for Bible reflections. Under the leadership of Lidia Colon, they take turns keeping vigil at the monthly First Friday exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

Ines Calderon oversees the Daughters of Mary, a group for girls who serve and read at Mass and teach religious education classes. "They are an example for the parish," Father Oviedo said. Kenneth Maisoneth is president of the Holy Name Society.

"It's the faith people have" which makes the parish special, said Ventura Cardoza, parish secretary. "We work together and love this church. It has something that makes the people feel grateful for being here. It's a poor community, but we feel we are rich spiritually."

The parish will participate in a convocation of 11 South Bronx parishes Tuesday through Thursday, Dec. 14-16, at St. Luke's Church on 138th Street and Cypress Avenue to prepare for Christmas and Jubilee Year 2000. Priests will preach and lay persons will give testimonies.

The people of St. Roch's, with its history of 100 years, will be preparing to enter the year 2000--small, but very much alive.

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