Saturday, June 2, 2012

Our Lady of Esperanza

I haven’t been back to Spain since my December trip (although I hope to go again this summer, possibly back to the Camino) but I wanted to give signs of life.  So here’s my most recent Spanish thing.

Last week, I was back in my home town, New York City, and I went up to Our Lady of Esperanza on 156th St, between Broadway and Riverside.   It’s not open all the time, so I decided to go to Sunday mass at the church and I consulted the diocesan website, which seemed to be a little out of date. I thought I would be attending the main Spanish mass, but I ended up at an English mass, although most of the attendees appeared to be members of the large Dominican population in the neighborhood (which used to be Irish and Jewish when I was a child).  They were probably bilingual to some extent, but their major language was clearly English. In other words, this was the second or possibly third generation, following the usual NYC immigrant path.  In addition, a number of the families seemed to be Dominican/Irish, so an entirely new group has started in Upper Manhattan!

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It is a beautiful little church with an interesting history.  The building was built in 1909 with a donation and support from Sra. Da. Manuela de Laverrerie de Barril, wife of the Spanish Consul-General in New York at that time.  They were friends of Archer Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society and its museum, which are right around the corner on Audubon Terrace, and it was in fact his cousin, Charles Huntington who designed the building.

It was intended for the Spanish speaking peoples of New York, who at that time were not very numerous and were located mostly in the area of 14th St on the West Side, where the tiny Spanish church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, was located. 

There are very beautiful things in it – the sanctuary lamp, for example, was donated by Alfonso XIII – and the design is truly lovely.  It looked to me as if the signature on the St Joseph altar read, “J. Sorolla, 1912”.    Unfortunately, the companion painting of the Virgin on the other side has disappeared and been replaced by a paper copy.  I hope it was simply out for restoration, but I doubt it.

While the church appears to have a group of active and friendly parishioners, who were having a rummage sale on the street outside when I visited, it is clearly in need of maintenance and even repair and restoration. The little sign on this beautiful window showing St Augustine with his mother, St Monica, says “Please don’t open the door, it’s (almost) broken.”

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This is one of those difficult situations. The church and the diocese should restore and maintain the property, because the Spanish speaking peoples of Upper Manhattan (and their Irish in-laws!) deserve to have this wonderful gift featuring the Spanish heritage. At the same time, I can understand that there are other concerns. 

The pastor – or at any rate, the priest at the mass I attended – is African, and gave a homily in his heavily accented English that told people not to fear spirits (he named some, either African or from the Caribbean voodoo/santeria cults) because the Holy Spirit was stronger than all of them.  This may sound silly, but the problem is that many people from Caribbean cultures (and even in Mexico) believe in these spirits, and having the Church tell them not to worry because God in Our Lord Jesus Christ is good and more powerful than all spirits releases them from fear.  This was exactly the message that St Patrick gave to his spirit-terrified Irish converts back in the 5th century.

So I know there are things more important than maintaining an historical art treasure, but at the same time, beauty and faith and evangelization all work together, and I wish some wealthy New Yorker would take up this mission of Spanish beauty.