Feature Story

Heart of Highbridge

South Bronx parish is at center of neighborhood renewal


Celebrations will be mixed with sadness at the parish picnic of Sacred Heart in the South Bronx this weekend. The parish marks 125 years and highlights its vital role in an ongoing revival of the Highbridge neighborhood. At the same time, it gives a reluctant farewell to Father Mark T. Cregan, C.S.C., pastor since 1992, who has been named president of a New England college run by his order, the Congregation of Holy Cross.

At Sacred Heart, Father Cregan has overseen a $2 million renovation of the nine parish buildings, including the church, school and parish center. But he is known most for his work with the people of the parish and the neighborhood. With only one other priest on staff, he formed a lay pastoral team to lead many daily activities of the parish and forged a close alliance with the Highbridge Unity Center, which provides education and social services. Father Cregan is vice chairman of the Highbridge Community Housing and Development Fund, which since 1988 has opened 1,000 affordable apartments with state and federal subsidies in the nation's poorest congressional district.

He will be missed, but the work of the parish and the revival of the neighborhood will continue, thanks to the spirit of initiative and ownership which has grown up in Highbridge in recent years.

"Him leaving, it was a surprise. We learned so much from him, but we will still go ahead with the advice he has given us," said Antonia Diaz, known as the madrina, godmother, of Highbridge.

At 90 years of age, she has lived in the Bronx for 54 years and in Sacred Heart parish for 35. She stayed through the years of urban blight that swept the South Bronx in the '60s and '70s and was a key figure in the neighborhood's revival and resettlement. Mrs. Diaz sits on the board of a number of community organizations and starts her day walking the hilly streets to Mass in the parish chapel. She then heads off to her post as director of the Alliance for Progress, which has renovated hundreds of apartments since 1983.

"We have social services for everybody here," said Mrs. Diaz, "but the important one is the Lord. He is the one that makes all of this work."

Mrs. Diaz was part of a wave of immigrants from Puerto Rico beginning about 50 years ago. Her four children and many others who settled in Highbridge have moved into higher-income neighborhoods. New immigrants to the area include a large number from the Dominican Republic and West Africa, and Sacred Heart continues to serve newcomers seeking a foothold in this country.

When Ronalda Mejia came from the Dominican Republic 10 years ago, she was afraid to leave her apartment.

"I was isolated. I wouldn't go out at night because people said it was dangerous," said Ms. Mejia, whose son, Ruben, is in the seventh grade at Sacred Heart School.

Conditions have improved and now she says, "Being here has changed my life--not to be afraid, and to be a part of this community where there are so many good people."

Father Cregan put her in charge of the Renew program, a three-year process of catechesis and small-group meetings designed to enliven and unify a parish.

"You get to know everyone in the parish. Here we have Africans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, with so many different cultures, and we learn to work together," she said.

This was evident at the anniversary Mass celebrated June 24 by Auxiliary Bishop James F. McCarthy. More than 600 people, present and past parishioners, filled the church and gathered for a reception afterward. The parish picnic is scheduled for Aug. 5 in a park in Rockland County, home to many former parishioners.

Leaving an active and growing parish raises "mixed feelings," said Father Cregan late last week, his final week in the Bronx. Serving in Highbridge has been "the closest experience to falling in love," he said. "To say goodbye is difficult."

He has moved to Easton, Mass., outside Boston, to be president of Stonehill College. Eight graduates of Sacred Heart School are enrolled there, and Father Cregan has opened the doors to more. In his farewell talk to the grade-schoolers, he offered a scholarship to any student who graduates from high school and meets the Stonehill admission standards. A mother of a kindergartner said excitedly, "I want the name of that school. My daughter will be there in 12 years."

Building a better future amid sometimes trying conditions has been a hallmark of Sacred Heart. When the South Bronx was crumbling beneath spiraling crime and government neglect, and buildings were burned by absentee landlords and down-and-out residents, the school remained open and the church was a haven of hope. Msgr. Peter C. O'Donnell, the pastor who guided the parish through some of the worst years to the beginnings of renewal, said that when he arrived as administrator in 1975, the area looked like "Dresden after the firebombing."

"The fires burned all around but enough good ground was left to replant," said Msgr. O'Donnell, now pastor of Our Lady of Esperanza in Washington Heights, just across the Harlem River from Highbridge. "There were gutted buildings on every street and sheet metal boarding up the windows with painted flowerpots on them. It was like living in a movie set. The key for us, as a parish determined to survive, was to try to make sense of all this and find a way to continue."

He inherited a huge parish debt which mounted as 400 families moved out in one summer. Things were so bad that when firefighters rushed into the rectory at 2 a.m. to announce that they had saved the convent from a nearby fire, the pastor was less than jubilant. A fire could at least bring in some insurance money, he said, only half kidding.

"It's a place that should have died but didn't. There's no explanation for it except the immense love and creativity of so many people and the grace of God," said Msgr. O'Donnell. "These are people who had nothing to lose and a determination to save their homes and neighborhood."

A new pastor has not been named, but whoever is appointed will come to what Father Cregan calls "a thriving little city on a hill." The upper and lower grades of the school, once separate, were recently consolidated under one principal, Joanne Walsh, with more than 800 students. The religious education program, directed by Sister Christina Dougherty, P.B.V.M., has 400 students. Yolanda Torres heads the youth ministry, summer camp and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, in which classes are held in both English and Spanish. Parish groups include the Legion of Mary, women's bible study, Cursillo and Charismatic prayer group.

Three Sunday Masses are offered, one in Spanish. Father Javier Potes, from Colombia, is parochial vicar.

The location of Sacred Heart Church reflects its role in the neighborhood. At the top of one hill and at the midpoint of another, it rests at the intersection of three streets that form a rough diamond at its doorstep. All Highbridge roads may not lead to the church, but many hearts, Catholic and non-Catholic, holy and less than holy, are drawn there.

At its height in the 1930s through the 1950s, Sacred Heart was a booming parish of firstand second-generation Irish, Italians and Germans. Msgr. O'Donnell tells a story handed down in parish lore that when Cardinal Francis Spellman visited the parish, he was astounded by the size of the Holy Name Society parade.

"The parade went on and on, and the cardinal asked how many times they were going to go around the block. He couldn't believe there could be so many parishioners," said Msgr. O'Donnell.

Parish beginnings go back to a walk taken by a young priest named in the records only as Father Mullen. Coming upon the hilly, undeveloped area above Jerome Avenue, he found a few Catholic homes far from any church. With the blessing of Cardinal John McCloskey in 1875, Father Mullen became pastor of the new parish, a position he held for 32 years. The first year, Mass was offered in a public hall at the corner of West 165th Street and Summit Avenue. Without funds to build a new church, the industrious pastor made an unusual move. He acquired a wood-frame church building on Manhattan's lower East Side, had it cut into parts and transported to Highbridge. It was dedicated in October 1877 by Cardinal McCloskey.

Father Mullen left another lasting legacy. To reflect his love of Elizabethan literature, he had the street in front of the church and rectory named Shakespeare Avenue.

The old wood structure was too small by the time the second pastor, Father John Lennon, came in 1908. The cornerstone was laid in 1910 for the present church, which has a beautiful Dorset marble facade and 16 steps leading majestically to the door. After World War I, a massive stained-glass memorial was installed over the entrance, with the figure of Christ on the cross flanked by the seven young men from the parish who were killed, in their Navy and Army uniforms.

In 1926 the parish opened a school, with the De La Salle Christian Brothers teaching the boys and the Sisters of Mercy the girls. It sparked the beginning of the parish's great growth. In the height of the Depression, Father Peter Guinevan built an addition to the church to raise seating capacity to 800 and purchased the lots around the church and rectory where eight parish buildings now stand.

Msgr. William Humphrey became pastor in 1934 and continued for more than 30 years. With enrollment exceeding 2,000 students, he built another school building and a second convent. In 1940 he purchased a former Episcopal church and turned it into St. Eugene's Chapel, to serve people down the hill, near Yankee Stadium. When a modern, spacious rectory was completed in the late 1950s (nicknamed "Humphrey's Hilton") there were signs that the heyday of the neighborhood was passing. Soldiers returning from World War II started families in the suburbs. The 1960s brought their own urban problems.

Msgr. Henry J. Lenahan was pastor from 1966 to 1981, when he retired, and Msgr. O'Donnell became pastor. In 1990, Cardinal O'Connor assigned the parish to the Holy Cross Fathers, citing the congregation's history of working with the poor. Father Joseph F. Callahan, C.S.C., was pastor for two years before Father Cregan. The parish now will be staffed by archdiocesan priests.

With the spirit and spunk of Antonia Diaz and dozens of others, the parish brought the neighborhood through the darkest days.

"We never lost faith. Most of us, even though we had problems, decided to stay," she said.

"She survived it," said Father Cregan. "She revived it."

Kay Morrissey, a parish accountant, was one of the few of Irish heritage to remain. Her four children graduated from the parish school, and she and her husband reluctantly moved to another part of the Bronx only in 1987 when drug dealers moved into the apartment above them.

"We love Highbridge. It's part of you. I still come back to Sacred Heart to work every day," she said.

Msgr. O'Donnell said that the school was the key to the neighborhood's revival. In the mid-'70s, a group of Marist Brothers seeking a tough urban environment came to Sacred Heart. Enrollment, down to 450, topped 800.

"They were the shock troops," said Msgr. O'Donnell. "They gave the perception of stability, that this place was worth saving. We'd be patching windows and people would be throwing rocks through the ones we just fixed. But we didn't give up."

Around the same time, in 1977, two Blauvelt Dominican Sisters came to do community outreach. The program blossomed into the Highbridge Unity Center, which now has offices in the old St. Eugene's Chapel. Brother Edward Phelan, F.S.C., is director. With 80 employees and funding from government and foundations, the center offers adult education, after-school programs, counseling, job training and emergency food and rent money. Although not officially a parish organization, the center serves parishioners and is "a stakeholder in the whole process of renewing the area that the parish is involved in," said Brother Phelan.

One of the most popular programs is the Highbridge Voices, a group of neighborhood youngsters who first performed when Cardinal O'Connor visited renovated apartment houses in the area.

"Highbridge Voices is not just a music group. It teaches these children that hard work and discipline give results," said Father Cregan.

Ten years ago, Sister Mary Doris, O.P., founded Siena House, a transitional shelter for single mothers. Housed in the old convent, its 27 rooms are filled by women and their infants who are referred by city shelters. The former convent chapel is a nursery, with stained-glass images of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph looking on.

In 1987 a huge step in the neighborhood's stability was taken when the city approached the archdiocese to oversee a multimillion-dollar project to restore existing inner-city housing in the area. The Highbridge housing fund has turned 29 gutted buildings into pleasant, affordable units. Work is beginning on 250 units for senior citizens, and next year private homes will be built on vacant lots.

"This will be the crowning piece of the neighborhood's stability," said Msgr. Donald Sakano, director of Catholic Charities' Department of Neighborhood Housing and pastor of Holy Innocents parish in Manhattan. "Once people start buying homes and investing in the neighborhood, the message will be out that this is a neighborhood to stay."