Sunday in Manhattan

The morning was already hot and muggy when Alice and I emerged from the New York subway into a Lower East Side neighborhood of shuttered businesses, piles of uncollected garbage bags, and faded signs in Chinese and Spanish. We were in a world that was waiting for something to happen. With the value of Manhattan real estate sky high, it is only a matter of time until the area will be gentrified. Our destination was a church located on East 12th Street and Avenue ‘A’ that we eventually found sandwiched between two aging brick buildings.  Encountering an elderly man about to ascend its steep stone steps, I asked when the Italian community had left this area. “Italians?” he replied.  “Had there been Italians here?”

Indeed there had been. In the 1890s hundreds of thousands of Italians, driven from their homeland by poor economic conditions, had flocked to New York and tenement districts such as East 12th street were crowded with pushcarts, vegetable wagons and playing children. Many of the men were laborers doing backbreaking work, for minimum pay. In the sweltering heat of summer, families slept on fire escapes or the roofs of their apartment buildings.  Almost everyone was poor, and it was not until 1918 that their Church was completed; a baroque structure with tall columns, soaring arches painted like marble, whose altar was bathed in shafts of sunlight from high clerestory windows. In a world where children were mocked in the public schools for their accents and where it was dangerous to enter nearby neighborhoods, the grand church served as the community’s refuge and heartbeat.

Each May at the feast of the Virgin, the street was festooned with red, white and green electric lights, food stands were set up and for several nights there was music. Festivities culminated with a Mass that ended with a procession of the statue of the Madonna Help of Christians.  This life-size likeness was carried from the church on a high platform amidst a discharge of fireworks, and the crowds would gasp at the beauty of the statue with roses in its crown, decked in jewels and trailing long streamers on which people pinned money.  The procession included clergy, altar boys carrying candles and incense, girls wearing white dresses with blue sodality mantles, and women dressed in black, some carrying banners, others walking in their bare-feet. Leading the procession were a police escort and a band.  Serious men with their sashes and canes, passed between throngs of people lining sidewalks, as the musical refrain “Viva Maria, Maria Viva!” was sung again and again.

In New York's Italian neighborhoods the May processions were a high point of the year.
In New York’s Italian neighborhoods the May processions were a high point of the year.

I had been here once before. In the early 1960s a college friend brought me to an apartment building where paint was peeling off the hallways, to meet his mother, Pauline Fasulo. From her third floor apartment window, she had proudly shown me how I could look down the street and see the façade of the church. The memory of the house of worship set amid crumbling tenement buildings stayed with me.

Forty years later, the statuary of the church still reflected a religious perspective in which saints and madonnas were family:  St. George, St. Sebastian, Anthony of Padua, Our Lady of Providencia, St. Cosmas and Damien, St. Bartholomew, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, St. Rita of Cascia, St. Lucy, St. Michael Archangel, St. Francis Cabrini, Our Lady of Refuge. But the men and women whose simple faith allowed them to converse with saints as dear friends, and for whom the church was the threshold to the world above, were gone.  On a side altar, with electric candles burning, and hand written petitions for soldiers in Iraq, stood the community patroness, Mary Help of Christians, marked with a small memorial: “Pauline Fasulo, deceased December 24, 1967.”

By the end of the 1980s most of the Italian community had moved to the suburbs. The religious street fairs had ended. Later, the parish school closed and the sisters left. Finally, the monthly parish flea market, whose earnings were used to support the destitute, was turned over to another organization. Several of the statues were stolen and their cubicles had been covered over with Plexiglas. It was not a complete surprise when the Archdiocese of New York listed Mary Help of Christians as one of 21 parishes that were being suppressed to allow resources to be directed to new and growing communities. It was announced that the Church will be maintained as a “chapel,” attached to the French Gothic-style Church of the Immaculate Conception three blocks away, but how long this arrangement will continue is not clear.

The 10 AM Sunday Mass that day was therefore a subdued affair, with less than two dozen worshippers in attendance — half of whom appeared to be first-time visitors. An intense young man, singing alone and without musical accompaniment, provided what singing there was.  Alice and I had come that morning hoping to experience what remained in Manhattan of a once vibrant spirituality, but had arrived twenty years too late.

The 10 AM Sunday Mass at Mary Help of Christians Church was a subdued affair
The 10 AM Sunday Mass at Mary Help of Christians Church was a subdued affair

In May of this year the Church of Mary Help of Christians celebrated its final Mass as a parish community. During the service, a 91-year old priest shared memories with a congregation, packed with former residents of the community. Fr. Anthony Spano had been baptized in this church, and had celebrated his first Mass here. He told of the parish’s impact on the neighborhood, it children’s choirs, festivals, volunteer organizations, youth clubs and its care for troubled souls.  At the conclusion of the liturgy, the statue of the Madonna with flowers in her crown was carried from the church through the empty and uncomprehending streets and the old songs were sung. But it was over.  The rich and unique contribution of the East Side Italian Community, like those of other nationalities, had diffused into the broad mainstream of American Catholic life.

August 29, 2007