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Since 1732, the Redemptorists — a congregation of missionary priests and brothers — have followed in Jesus’ footsteps, preaching the Word and serving the poor and most abandoned.
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The Word on the street

Reproduced from Spring 2013 edition of Plentiful Redemption

By Stephanie K. Tracy

On a warm, cloudy day, the streets of the Melrose neighborhood in the South Bronx bustled with people, cars, buses, trucks, bicycles. Half a block north of the busiest shopping area in town, the rust red door of Immaculate Conception Church stood wide open in welcome … just like the parish family that brings the 125-plus year old community to life.

“This is home to me,” said Nilta, who came from Puerto Rico when she was three. “When I don’t come I feel empty. People here are nice. This is church. Someone will always be here to listen.”

Immaculate Conception is one of four churches in the Bronx that’s been around since before 1900. The Redemptorists arrived in the neighborhood in 1886. The words “Redemptorist Missionaries” greet everyone who walks in the front door. Like many other faith communities, Immaculate Conception stayed during the dark years of the 1970s and 1980s when the neighborhood burned around them.

“So many people left during those years,” said Marty Rogers, a member of the parish council and a community organizer. His mother graduated from the parish school in 1930. He was born here, also graduated from the school, and is a familiar face around the property. “The churches didn’t leave. They were getting broken into and robbed. They looked like hell, but they hung in there. Our mutual need keeps us together. This has always been the first or second stop off the boat, where people are hustling in the best sense of that word. For some reason, word on the street is that this is a neighborhood you can make it in.”

The pastor, Father Frank Skelly, himself a son of the parish and graduate of the school, is awed by the power of that “word on the street” that’s beginning to attract a healthy population of young adults. The parish includes 650 registered families, and draws 850 to 900 people every week for Mass. Though the area has improved, Immaculate Conception still sits within the poorest Congressional district in the country.

“We have about 30 people in our RCIA program this year,” he said. “I don’t know where they’re coming from, but they somehow found the 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass. Most of them are completely unchurched, but they’ve heard on the street that this is where they can come.”

One recent week night, the parish hall held more than 200 people for a citizenship class. Many in the crowd were studying for their citizenship test, one of the final hurdles in the process. These classes are offered regularly and for free.

The parish has long advocated for immigrants, and offers several resources and classes to help with everything from documentation to rent, from learning English to finding a job. Parish leaders also lobby local politicians, like mayoral candidates, to encourage them to support laws and policies that protect the rights of immigrants and the poor. True to Redemptorist tradition, everyone is welcome, especially those on the margins and in the shadows.

Jorge, who’s lived in the Bronx for more than 50 years, was a longtime taxi driver. For many years he didn’t go to church, but he found time to help run a prayer group that visits people in their homes to talk about Jesus.

“This is the best where you can go. Here you’ll learn a lot and be close to Jesus,” he said. “With the prayer group, we go pray in the house with people. We teach them sometimes they have to leave superstition, they have to give stuff up for Jesus.”

There are families at Immaculate (as the lifelong members refer to it) who’ve been coming to this beautiful Gothic-style, German-built church for more than 60 years. What began as a German and then Irish community is now made up of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Ecuadorans, African-Americans and Nigerians. This is home, and a place where they know they can both be cared for and take care of others.

The parish school, staffed by the Sisters of Christian Charity, is the oldest Catholic elementary in the Bronx. With an enrollment of 500 students, 99 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches, it’s a vibrant part of the community.

Gladys has been a parishioner for 63 years.

“Mom and Dad moved here when I was four. When I retired, my granddaughter was in school here and she started telling the principal about her grandma. I came to volunteer at the reception desk and the lunch room. Immaculate is it. This is it,” Gladys said.

Maxine is another parishioner, school volunteer, and proud graduate, whose children are now in school here. The 30-minute trip from home to church and school isn’t an inconvenience or a burden.

“We all work together as a family for the children. It’s the same familiar faces every Saturday and Sunday,” she said. “Everyone’s helpful and going out of their way to look out for each other. Our children is our main concern.”

For more than 30 years now, Immaculate has sponsored a Thanksgiving Day dinner. School students serve more than 200 guests in the parish hall, and a small army of families and young adults deliver complete meals to the elderly and homebound.

And somehow there’s always enough for everyone.

“One year there were parents who brought their kids on Thanksgiving Day and at the end they said we’re just gonna come home,” said Marty. “I knew they didn’t have anything at home. So I said, we got a turkey left over here. They didn’t want to take it, but I told them it’d go to waste otherwise. They left with a whole Thanksgiving dinner plus the cab fare. The problem was just solved. That’s the hand of God. There’s always more for someone.”

Stephanie K. Tracy is the communications manager for the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province.