Just before noon on Thursday, the pre-K3 class toddled in paper papal miters past a shuttered little church behind Our Lady Queen of Angels School that looks fit for a Fiat.
“Welcome to East Harlem Pope Francis,” read posters that had been taped to the church’s locked doors in anticipation of the pontiff’s scheduled visit to the school on Friday.
The greeting was accompanied by a plea.
“The Parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels Continue on the Sidewalk. PLEASE OPEN OUR CHURCH.”
The youngsters now trooping past had been five years from being born when the small red brick church was closed after more than a century of serving the adjoining school and the surrounding barrio. The archdiocese cited dwindling attendance and scarce funds and a shortage of priests.
Every single Sunday morning since the closing—be it in soaking rain or bone-chilling blizzard or broiling heat—the resolute parishioners have held a service outside their beloved Our Lady Queens of Angels Church.
“Eight years, seven months,” said parishioner Carmen Melendez, who was out shopping on Thursday and stopped to watch the youngsters.
Two of the faithful who succumbed to unrelated illnesses had said they did not want to be buried out of any other church. The funerals were held on the front steps, one in a chilling downpour. Everybody felt a shared loss.
“We make a family,” Melendez said on Thursday. “A spiritual family. This is something beautiful.”
Melendez offered some theology as proven in weekly practice by her and her comrades.
“The church is us,” she said.
That is the same truth to which St. Francis arrived at the dawn of the 13th century after he visited the crumbling chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi and heard a voice command him, “Rebuild my church.”
St. Francis commenced rebuilding the chapel with his own hands before he decided that he had not been meant to take the words so literally. He then set to work with simple faith and pure devotion.
No doubt St. Francis would have seen more beauty in the spirit of the parishioners outside the closed Our Lady Queen of Angels than in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with its $117 million in new renovations. The pope who adopted Francis’s name might very well feel the same.
But all the material splendor of the cathedral was right there for Pope Francis to behold as he strode up to its big open doors on a golden stretch of Fifth Avenue on Thursday evening.
He may very well not even know the story of the little shuttered church behind the school of the same name that he is scheduled to visit late Friday afternoon before proceeding on to Central Park.
With the hope of alerting the pope to their plight as well as welcoming him to the neighborhood, the parishioners hung big banners in Spanish and English across from the school bearing the same message as the posters on the doors of the church.
“Where he might see them,” said parishioner Patricia Rodriguez.
Rodriguez had been up by the altar, serving as a Eucharistic minister, when she learned the church was being closed eight years ago. She had doffed her gown and joined the others in the pews.
“We made a plan we would stay in the church,” she recalled.
They had remained there in shifts around the clock. She had been taking a turn when the police moved in. She was arrested for trespassing.
“How would you trespass in your home?” she later asked. “It didn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The others who were arrested at the request of the archdiocese included Gladys Mestre.
“They called us ‘misguided souls,’” she remembered.
She telephoned her kids from the precinct.
“I said, ‘Guess what? I’m arrested,’” she recalled. “They said, ‘My mom’s a con!’”
The very next Sunday, Rodriguez, Mestre, and three dozen other parishioners held a service outside the church. They continued to do so without missing a Sunday, right through this most recent Sunday preceding Pope Francis’s visit to the school. They could not help but hope that the impending visit would be accompanied by an answer to their prayers.
“If ever a miracle could happen, that would be it,” Mestre said.
She knew what she would say to the pope if she ever had the opportunity.
“I would ask him to open our church, and if he said no, I would ask him why,” she said.
She was well aware of the millions upon millions that had been spent on the cathedral while their church remained shuttered.
“All this luxury,” she said.
As on all the other Sundays, the parishioners gathered for outdoor prayer and scripture readings and blessings and the sign of peace and song, in this instance including “Be Not Afraid.” There was also discussion, this week concerning love.
“What is the greatest love?” a regular named Luz Alvarez asked. “For a child! It’s pure love.”
A longtime regular in attendance included 91-year-old Margarita Barada, who summarized in two words what the church meant to her.
“My life,” she said.
At the end of the service, the parishioners formed a circle in front of the still shuttered church and held hands. The sky had cleared to porcelain blue.
“I love these Sunday mornings, so bright and the air is fresh,” Barada said. “And if this door were open, I would be the first one to rush in.”
She declared, “I have faith that this door will soon be open.”
On Thursday, the students at the school were dismissed early to allow further preparation for the pope’s visit the following afternoon. They emerged from the back of the building in small, orderly groups, including the dozen from pre-K3 who wore paper papal miters.
“See all the children!” Melendez exclaimed.
The ones in the hats continued along with the others past the church that had once been an integral part of the school’s life, that the parishioners hope it will be again.
“So they can practice the faith they are being taught,” Rodriguez had said earlier.
The hope for a different lesson from the one offered by the closed church was expressed by the posters taped to the locked doors and the banners that had been hung out front, all bearing a bilingual welcome to the pope and the appeal “PLEASE OPEN OUR CHURCH.”
The children followed their teachers around to a playground on the far side of the school, filing past two TV trucks parked there to broadcast the next day’s papal visit. One of the youngsters, 3-year-old William Green, removed his pope hat.
“He said it was itching him,” his mother, Sheena Butler, explained.
She made clear that even if the miter itched, both she and William were more than happy with the school, which has been kept open with the help of The Partnership for Inner City Education.
“I love it, I really do,” the mother said. “I love the teacher, Miss Perez. He’s comfortable. He’s happy.”
As the preparations at the school continued, Pope Francis flew from Washington, D.C., to JFK Airport, and then helicoptered to Lower Manhattan. He climbed into the world’s most famous Fiat, which might have said something right away about the extravagance of the cathedral had he not switched to a white Popemobile on Fifth Avenue just down from Tiffany’s.
The pope had the magnificence of a man who shuns the material as he rode smiling down one of the richest stretches on Earth. The crowds cheered him in giddy, liberating recognition of what is truly important.
From that happy tumult, he passed into the cathedral and turned tenderly somber as he addressed his fellow priests and in particular the nuns—“the religious women of the United States”—who have joined him in the often trying life of the spirit. He spoke of “building the Kingdom of God” by ministering to the poor, of “serving with generosity,” and of “growing in this spirit of gratitude.”
“Are we capable of counting our blessings?” he asked.
He was speaking as a modern day Francis answering a call to “rebuild my church.”
A more literal interpretation was represented by Cardinal Dolan of New York, who asked the pope to “bless our repaired cathedral.” The pope obliged him with no apparent misgivings despite the surrounding splendor.
The pope then departed the cathedral, which looked far too grand for the Fiat that carried him away, the Popemobile having been retired for the night.
The Fiat would be just right for Our Lady Queen of Angels uptown, but of course the church will be closed when he arrives in East Harlem on Friday afternoon. He is scheduled to proceed into the school, where 92 percent of the students are minority and two-thirds are on scholarship.
After speaking with a third-grade class, he is expected to meet in the school gym with immigrants, refugees, and day laborers who are being assisted by Catholic Charities.
The pope may or may not have occasion to see the closed church behind the school or the banners and posters with that simple plea.
The parishioners can only hope and pray.
Whatever the outcome, the parishioners consider his presence in East Harlem to be a miracle in itself. And they are one group of people who are most definitely capable of counting their blessings.
“This is an absolute blessing,” Rodriguez said of the visit.
“This is beautiful!” Melendez said.