June 21, 2011
It was a month of milestones for the Catholics of the South Bronx. On May 28, Rev. Thomas Fenlon, pastor of St. Augustine Church, celebrated 50 years as a priest. On June 3, Our Lady of Victory Church celebrated 100 years as a parish. On June 18, St. Augustine School graduated its 150th annual class. Happy occasions, each tinged with sadness and uncertainty.
Father Fenlon held his anniversary Mass in the historic Immaculate Conception chapel at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, on the Hudson River in the upscale Riverdale section of the Bronx. Over 800 people attended, including 150 relatives converging from all parts of the nation and the world. He rented buses to bring parishioners from churches where he’d served, in the Bronx, Harlem, and upstate Newburgh. After the two-hour ceremony, animated by St. Augustine School’s African dance troupe and the church’s Gospel Choir, he threw an outdoor catered reception with an ethnic balance of Latin and soul food, good wines and kegs of beer, stations serving ice cream and Italian ices, and even face-painting for the kids. The DJ played both bachatas and the Electric Slide. All this cost him plenty, but he spent gladly and lavishly, not for himself but for the people he loved through half a century of ministry among the poor.
He would have preferred to celebrate in his parish church, but the once-magnificent 115-year-old structure was shut two years ago as unsafe. The 300-member congregation now worships in the school auditorium, a contraction that may foreshadow its dissolution in the New York Archdiocese’s next round of parish closings coming up next year. Founded in 1849, when the area was mostly farmland, St. Augustine’s served the South Bronx through urban growth and urban decay; it may not be there to serve the new waves of immigrants coming to occupy the thousands of housing units going up just blocks away.
A sesquicentennial should be cause for rejoicing, but the graduation ceremony at St. Augustine School was cause for tears — the 150th class was also its last.
In the heyday of Catholic education throughout in the first half of the last century, up to a thousand students, first through eighth grades, packed the classrooms each year, drawing from the Irish, German, and Italian families that then characterized the neighborhood. As the demographics changed to largely non-Catholic African-Americans, the mission of the school broadened to serve not just Catholics but the whole community, a refuge of quality and discipline amidst the corruption and chaos of the public school system.
In a sense, the school was a victim of its own success. When charter schools, publicly financed yet independently run, began opening in the South Bronx a decade ago (many explicitly owing their educational philosophy of academic rigor, classroom order, and even uniforms, to the Catholic model — everything except the religion and the tuition) enrollment at St. Augustine’s began to erode; this year there were barely 200 students. Rather than committing to maintain the Catholic presence in the neighborhood through active recruitment and a sliding-scale tuition policy, the archdiocese evacuated.
In a last touch of irony, a charter school down the hill, with a surfeit of students and a dearth of space, will rent the building as a second campus.
The ceremony for the final 12 graduates was somber but inflected with that most absurd of the theological virtues, hope. “God has something in mind,” principal Cathryn Trapp told the disheartened handful of parents and parishioners in attendance. “God is working. We may have nothing, and yet we have it all.”
The centenary dinner for Our Lady of Victory, a parish less than a mile northwest of St. Augustine’s, was also bittersweet. Beneath the accolades and the merengue music was everybody’s realization that one hundred years marked only memory, not expectation. Like St. Augustine’s, this parish, with its charming little church on Webster Avenue that saw the transformation of its neighborhood from clusters of row houses and modest apartment buildings to massive public housing projects, became a satellite of a larger parish two years ago — a portent of impending demise.
When the South Bronx was at its worst, amidst the fires and the drugs and the violence that made it a worldwide symbol of urban desolation, the Catholic Church stood firm. Young priests, filled with the spirit of the civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council’s liberating call for justice for the poor, spent their lives here, tirelessly preaching the Good News of human dignity and organizing the community at large to address issues of discrimination, housing, hunger, addiction, and guns. Catholic schools sheltered children from the streets and prepared them for good colleges and good careers. During that time, the archdiocese channeled contributions from its wealthy parishes into the Church’s ministry to the inner city.
Now these priests, after 50 years or more of service, are leaving the scene, with few to replace them. The financial lifeline once thrown to impoverished parishes and schools by the archdiocese is being hauled in, citing “fiscal prudence.” Milestones are now millstones. Just as the Bronx is springing back, the institution of the Catholic Church is beating a retreat.
But the remnant remains at work, braced by that absurd theological virtue of hope.