Sunday, November 26, 2006

Jesuits leave historic Manhattan parish.

Today Roman Catholics around the world celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the Church's liturgical calendar. When the start of the Advent Season next Sunday, the Church enters into a new year. This year, the beginning of Advent will take on added significance for the parishioners of Nativity Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After being staffed by Jesuits for the past eighty-nine years, the 164-year-old parish returns to diocesan administration this week. Last night, Father Don Gannon, S.J. celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving on behalf of all the Jesuits who have served the parish. Attending the Mass, I was touched by Father Gannon's words about what Nativity has meant to the Jesuits of the New York Province and to him personally in his years as pastor of the parish.

The departure of the Jesuits marks the end of a significant era at Nativity. For generations, Nativity has been a beacon of hope and a place of refuge for the immigrant groups who have made their home on the Lower East Side - the Irish in the 19th century, the Italians in the early 20th century, and in recent decades many Dominicans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. The parish also holds a special place in the history of the Catholic Worker movement: Dorothy Day was a longtime parishioner, and two of the first Catholic Worker houses she founded are located near Nativity. Many Jesuits have grown in their sense of vocation living and working at Nativity, and as the home of the Nativity Mission Center the parish served as a launching pad for an educational network that has become a national ministry of the Society. As the number of Nativity-model schools has grown, the parish that gave the Nativity Network its name has suffered an ironic decline. Over the last decade Nativity has lost many parishioners to gentrification, as rising rents have forced poor residents to leave the neighborhood and tenements that housed generations of immigrants have been replaced by pricey condominiums and luxury apartments. As the number of people attending Mass at Nativity has fallen, the number of Jesuits available to minister there has also shrunk. Ultimately, the provincial of the New York Jesuits was forced to make the painful decision to withdraw from the parish.

With the departure of the Jesuits, Nativity faces an uncertain future. As I wrote in March, Nativity is on a list of parishes that the Archdiocese of New York has recommended for closing. No date has been set for the suppression of the parish, and for the time being the church remains open while the Archdiocese considers an appeal from Nativity's parishioners. Members of the parish who spoke during last night's Mass of Thanksgiving seemed optimistic that Nativity may be spared. I don't know whether this optimism is justified, but I can say that I was deeply moved by the words of appreciation that the same parishioners expressed for the Jesuits who have served at Nativity. Though they were clearly sad to see the Jesuits go, the parishioners who spoke last night showed no hint of anger or resentment at the Society's withdrawal from the parish. In this regard, these parishioners model a kind of spiritual freedom that I find truly admirable.

In his homily last night, Father Gannon shared how his sadness in leaving Nativity is tempered by a sense of gratitude for the many graces that he has found there and the many lessons he has learned from the parishioners. As the Jesuits leave Nativity, I hope that parishioners and priests alike are able to retain this spirit of gratitude for all that has been accomplished over the past eighty-nine years as well as a sense of peace and hope for the future. AMDG.


At 11/26/2006 9:37 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

You've done an amazing job at capturing the complexity of a truly bittersweet moment in time. Thank you for sharing it here.


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