Catholic Church’s Challenges Reflected in City’s Diverse Parishes

Brooklyn’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica is a grand Catholic church that takes up half a square block in Sunset Park.  Large services for dignitaries are often held here.  The parish used to be made up mostly of Irish and Italian immigrants. But now the majority of parishioners are Latino or Chinese. 

Father Joseph Tizio, 64, is the Pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The 64-year-old says the main basilica, which is large, fills up during Spanish services on Sunday morning.

“Lately, we’ve even had people standing for the mass which is really good,” he said.

The congregation, he notes, is mostly foreign born. Each week at Our Lady Perpetual Help, mass is said in four languages – English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese. 

Pedro Dumeng is an active member of the church. On Wednesday, he was there doing readings for mass and greeting many congregants by name. The 75-year-old was eager to talk about the selection of the first non-European Pope.

“We are very happy because we are no longer orphans and we’re happy to have a Pope that’s Hispanic, an Argentinean that’s going to represent the Latino community,” he said in Spanish. “It’s a blessing for us.”

Ana Leon from Guatemala is hoping for a new beginning for the church — one that sheds the scandals of the past several years.

“Like I told a friend today, we have a new leader that’s going to fight for us and lead us forward in our Catholic faith,” she said.

Father Tizio says one of the biggest issues facing his congregation is their legal status — many are undocumented.

“We’ve had some times where they’ve been abused or not paid so what are they going to do, go to court? Healthcare gets affected because they have no medical benefits they have nothing,” he explained. The church now runs an immigration clinic to help with some of these problems.

The immigrant community in Sunset Park keeps growing — and so does the church’s congregation — while the number of priests keeps shrinking. At one time Our Lady of Perpetual Help had more than 30 priests. Now it has 11, and nine of them are in their 70s and 80s. Tizio believes that eventually women will be given a larger role in the church out of necessity.

Father Peter Cao is the youngest priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He’s 44 and says mass for the church’s Chinese community. Cao is from Vietnam where he says having a priest in the family is still considered an honor. Although he loves New York City’s diversity and freedom, he doesn’t believe the church should change its moral teachings to attract new congregants.

“We need to have some tradition. If everyone have the freedom. If everyone have the same. You can do abortion, you can do same sex marriage…that is for me, I don’t think so,” he said.

Cao says the Chinese community is growing rapidly, in part, because the church gives them all a place to gather and build a sense of community. He says last year he baptized 39 new adult Chinese converts and this year he expects to baptize another 30. The Vietnamese Catholic community is also growing. He says mass for them once a week, too.

“Forty, 50 people come but after that we have a party, we play soccer. We play volleyball, we play ping pong,” he explained.

At our Lady of Perpetual help each of these groups are distinct and set apart by language and cultural barriers but Tizio says several times a year they all come together for a quadrilingua; service where they share their common catholic faith

In Different Borough, Same Faith But Different Outcomes

At the Church of St. Francis Xavier Jesuit parish on West 16th Street in Chelsea, all the masses are in English.  The church has with a reputation for being left of center.

On the same Wednesday the Vatican announced a new Pope, the church’s pastor, Father Joseph Costantino, asked the organist to stop playing the church’s new Opus 700 Peragallo pipe organ so he could do an interview.

(Photo: Father Joseph Costantino standing in front of one of the church's Tiffany windows. He's been the pastor at the Church of St. Francis Xavier for the past six years. Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

A slight man with silver hair and gray blue eyes, Father Joseph was not wearing the traditional black shirt with white collar but a blue button down shirt, tweed jacket and tie.

Standing on the altar, Costantino points up at the newly restored medallion mural overhead, depicting angels carrying St. Francis Xavier up to heaven. To the side of the alter are two Tiffany stained glass windows, both specially lit to always appear illuminated by the sun.  It’s part of the church’s $13 million renovation.

Costantino says people come to the church for its beauty, as well as the Jesuit tradition, which is known for being open to new ideas and not afraid of arguments about them.

“As I often tell people, you have two Jesuits, you’ll get three opinions,” he joked. “Jesuits come in all shapes sizes and theological perspectives.”

And Xavier, the church’s nickname, is open to a range of ministries. There’s a food pantry, a youth group, meetings for gay and lesbian Catholics and even a Zen Meditation Group. There's also a more active role for women.

Luz Marina Diaz is the director of religious education at the Church St. Francis Xavier. She came to New York from Venezuela 10 years ago to be a professional dancer, but found a vocation in the church. She has a Masters degree and PhD in religious education from Fordham University. At Xavier, she's more than an administrator. She’ll be preaching at the church’s Good Friday service in two weeks. She'd like to do that more often and that’s where Rome comes in.   

“As a woman, I would like a Pope that would accept women to be priests,” Diaz said.

But some people are less concerned with what the Pope says.

“I feel I don’t have to pay attention to Rome,” said Tom Berry, a parishioner there for three years. “I know in my heart what is right.”

Berry grew up going to Catholic school, began playing the organ at his childhood parish in the 5th grade and playing ever since. He searched for a long time to find a church that suited him, and then he found Xavier.

“This is the first parish that addressed my needs.  I actually come from New Jersey to go to mass here,” Berry said.

As a gay man, in a church that says homosexuality is a sin, Berry says his faith has been a source of strength. But he also says he knows lots of lapsed Catholics.

“Most people I know,” Berry said. “I even know a priest in the Boston Archdiocese who quit because he said, I can’t take it anymore.”

The "it", Berry says, is a list of teachings that say people like him are sinners, contraception is wrong, and women can never be priests. But that's not the core message at Xavier, Berry says, and that's why he comes here.

Still that can cause controversy. New York Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan ended a long-standing tradition by asking that the church’s gay and lesbian groups not carry the church’s banner when marching in the Annual Gay Pride Parade. The groups no longer carry the church's banner, but they still march.

And as other churches struggle to fill their pews, Xavier's congregations has grown by almost 50 percent in the last five years, according to their annual reports. 

Some come from far away to attend services, including House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, when she's in town visiting her daughter.  Father Costantino said the church will be packed on Easter Sunday. They'll put out extra chairs, but expect it to be standing-room only.