success stories

Posted March 9, 2004

A Success Story in Multiculturalism

Taken From Strangers and Aliens No Longer:
The Hispanic Presence

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC

St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish, Bronx, N.Y.

St. Nicholas of Tolentine is probably the most impressive church in the Bronx. Cardinal Spellman remarked that few cathedrals in the nation could match its beauty. Set on a busy intersection at the corner of University Avenue and Fordham Road, the parish was established as a territorial parish in 1906, and its first Masses were said in a garage nearby. The record reports that 127 people attended the first Mass. The parish is situated in University Heights, as the neighborhood is called due to the presence in the area at that time of New York University. This developed into an attractive, middle-class neighborhood, predominantly of Irish parishioners at the second stage of their mobility upward from poorer sections of Manhattan and the South Bronx. It was a thriving parish, in the style of the best Irish parishes of New York City. It was staffed from the beginning by the Augustinian fathers. An elementary school was started in 1907 and continues to flourish. A high school was established in 1927 but had to be closed in 1991 because of financial difficulties. Construction on the present church began during the 1920s. The lower church, which served as the main church for many years, was dedicated in 1928. The present structure was not completed until the 1950s. It was consecrated in 1957. The enormous church seats 1,400 people.

The parish enjoyed the extraordinary development of the Bronx between the First and Second World Wars. It was an attractive, reasonably prosperous middle-class Irish neighborhood. After the Second World War the Bronx began to feel the pressure of new migrations of American blacks and Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico. The parish was literally caught in the middle of the convulsive changes in the Bronx after the 1950s. It stands at a midpoint between the South Bronx which, was devastated in the burnings of 1975-1985 and the elegant section of the Bronx in Riverdale. Beginning in the 1950s a large-scale migration of Puerto Ricans took place into the South Bronx; many residents of Irish background moved north into the area of St. Nicholas of Tolentine. When the burning took place between 1975 and 1985, the Puerto Ricans were displaced and moved northward into the parish. Many of the Irish moved out to the suburbs. Blacks also moved northward into the parish. Fortunately, due to the efforts of a remarkable organization, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, the flight of white residents never became chaotic, and the burning never reached the area of St. Nicholas. Beginning in 1975, with the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in the United States, a small community of Vietnamese began to settle in the area of the parish. Other Asian refugees and immigrants followed from Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. A community center was established in the parish, and it became the center of the community of Asians in this section of the Bronx.

Thus by the late 1980s, St. Nicholas had become a multicultural parish, largely of Hispanics but with American and Caribbean blacks, and Asians of many nationalities. Ministering to such a variety of languages and cultures became an extraordinary challenge.

. . . .The parish has two Saturday evening Masses, one in English, one in Spanish. On Sunday there are five Masses, three in English, one in Spanish, one in Vietnamese. Total attendance at all Masses, three in English, one in Spanish, one in Vietnamese. Total attendance at all Masses was 2,360 on a given weekend: 1,210 English (many persons at the English Masses are Hispanics who speak English); 960 Spanish; 200 Vietnamese. An average of 120 persons attend daily Mass; it is not indicated whether these are English-speaking, Spanish-speaking or other. In the 1989-90 year, there were 10 Vietnamese baptisms, 175 Hispanic; there were two Vietnamese marriages, eight Hispanic.

The parish’s predominant mission is to the Spanish-speaking, mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican together with Mexicans, Salvadorans and others from Central and South America. There is a multicultural situation even among the Hispanics; apart from some common celebrations such as Three Kings, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Good Friday, there are many differences. Each group has its own patron. The parish celebrates Nuestra Senora de Providencia as a major Puerto Rican feast, but does not celebrate Altagracia for the Dominicans or Guadalupe for the Mexicans. (However it must be noted that the archdiocese has a major celebration for all three at the cathedral.) The parish has been able to bring about a unity among the Hispanics. At weekend Masses and on the great feasts, they all celebrate together (One priest on the parish staff recalls a parish where he served in New England that had to have two Spanish Masses, one for Puerto Ricans and one for Dominicans. Nothing like this exists at St. Nicholas.) Nevertheless there is a definite sense of community among the distinct Hispanic groups as well as their sense of a common community in the parish.

Cambodians began coming to the area of the parish in the late 1970s and, in 1982, a center, St. Rita’s, was established to be of assistance to them. During the 1980s the Vietnamese boat people continued to be resettled in the Bronx. Hmong and Laotians also settled in the area and, in 1989, when the federal government allowed Amerasians (children of American fathers and Asian mothers) to migrate to the United States, the St. Rita’s Center was chosen as a resettlement site. Some of these are Catholics; but there are many of other Asian religions. Thus it has been a challenge to try to minister to them in a manner with which they are at home. The weekly Mass is offered in Vietnamese since most of the Catholics are of that ethnic group. It is not clear how the parish will seek to deal with this problem.

One major challenge is ministry to the remnant of the Irish who are left in the parish. They chose to stay in the area, however changing it may be. The are the main support of the Church (of the 60 top contributors to the cardinal’s fund, 55 were Irish). And they are still among the most faithful attendees at Mass. But they feel isolated in the new community that has developed around them. Like most New Yorkers, they are afraid of the streets; they are reluctant to go out at night. The parish provides transportation at night to help the Irish get to parish functions. With the special attention the parish has given the Hispanics, the Irish can easily feel left out. However, the parish staff tries to find every occasion when attention can be called to the Irish presence. The parish staff reminds the newcomers of the extraordinary contribution the Irish parishioners made to the parish. St. Patrick’s Day is given prominence. And on special feast days of the parish, such as the feast of St. Augustine or Nicholas of Tolentine, liturgies are celebrated in three languages.

Parish staff members are insistent that a sense of individual identity must be respected; otherwise there is little possibility of creating a sense of common identity in the faith and in the parish. Hispanics feel at home in the Spanish celebrations; those who prefer English attend the English-speaking Mass. Bilingual and trilingual liturgies meet with mixed reactions. Slowly, however, the parishioners are beginning to sense a common identity in the parish together with their individual identity as an ethnic or nationality group. At the Holy Thursday celebration, for example, which is a trilingual celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the people have all been taught to sing the “Pange Lingua” in Latin.

One particularly successful strategy of the parish is International Day. This begins with a procession from the basement of the church to a nearby park where celebrations take place representing all the different cultures. The Irish have their bagpipes, their music an dances, and they are evidently proud to display them before the other ethnic groups. The Mexicans are in typical dress and accompanied by mariachies; Dominican and Puerto Rican music and dances are performed, as well as those of the Vietnamese and other Asians. Typical food of each ethnic group is served. The parish staff find that this is the most effective celebration in giving each group a sense of pride in its own cultural background as well as the opportunity to enjoy the culture of all the others.

The parish has a parish plan by which it originally sought to develop small Christian communities in sections of the parish. This came into conflict with many other groups, the Cursillistas and charismatics among the Hispanics or the traditional organizations of the Irish. Thus a new strategy developed of trying to have small-group discussions at occasional parish meetings. “We learned,” said the pastor, “that we first had to learn to listen to each other and then move in collaboration to other things.”

The parish has responded admirably to the needs of the poor in the area. It operates a senior citizen’s meal program as well as child-abuse prevention program in the lower church. As indicated above, the St. Rita’s Center serves the Asians who have settled in the area. The top floor of the high school is now the site of a day care center. And the parish has been an active member of the North West Bronx Community an Clergy Coalition. This is a wide-ranging community organization which began about 12 years ago, mainly to slow the flight of older residents from the neighborhood and to prevent the convulsive change that would have destabilized the neighborhood. It has focused its attention on preservation of the area’s housing stock. It has protected renters from exploitation and enabled the neighborhood to change without becoming chaotic. It also addresses the drug problem, organizing community protests and demonstrations to keep the drug merchants out and to help prevent drug abuse among the youth. Thus together with its spiritual ministry the parish is a strong advocate for the poor and has developed numerous programs to meet their needs. These activities touch all, whether Catholics or not, and members of all ethnic and racial groups. These social ministries help to develop a sense of solidarity and involvement in common interests among all the people of the area and have become an important factor in maintaining a sense of unity as a community.

Thus in an area of rapid and unusually extensive change, and with parishioners from as many as a dozen different cultural backgrounds, the parish staff has set itself to assist its varied groups to develop a sense of common identity in the faith while they continue to have a sense of their own identity in a variety of celebrations which are meaningful to them. This requires enormous effort on the part of parish staff and parishioners. It requires imaginativeness, flexibility and incredible patience. The staff and people of St. Nicholas of Tolentine are showing a determination to prove it can be done.