Century of Change
St. Martin of Tours plants seed of hope in tough Bronx neighborhood
By STEPHEN STEELE

The eighth-graders hugged their pastor as they filed out of commencement practice. Some of the girls were crying. That began, their teacher said, as they practiced their graduation song, "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Tears flow easily at 100-year-old St. Martin of Tours parish in the Bronx. Earlier that week, those same children cried over the coffin of a young man who was shot execution style, another victim of the pervasive violence that has characterized this gritty northwest Bronx neighborhood.

Father John C. Flynn has buried four young men this year. Since becoming pastor in 1989, he has celebrated Funeral Masses for more than 50 teens and young adults.

It was the plight of the young people that motivated Father Flynn in 1992 to found Save a Generation, a training program for at-risk youth. The program teaches street kids life skills--among them, how to find and keep a job. It also pushes them to complete school. It was a vehicle, he said, for the youth to escape the drugs, poverty and hopelessness of their neighborhood.

One June morning, Father Flynn visited a current Save a Generation participant at PS 57 where the 21-year-old is interning as a teacher's aide. Nate Gomez has performed so well that the school has offered him a full-time job in the fall, providing he completes his graduate equivalency diploma.

He was expelled from high school two years ago and kicked out of a GED program a year later. "I had some problems then," he acknowledged. The staff at the school now describes him as "a big teddy bear."

"One of the great things that happened with Nate was when he said he sees the kids 'as equals,' " Father Flynn told CNY. "That's one of the most important lessons we try to teach the kids--to relate to one another as human beings whose lives have value and dignity."

On the way to PS 57, Father Flynn passed a young couple he's been counseling. The thin-limbed, heavily tattooed man stood silently while his partner explained to the priest why they couldn't make the last meeting.

The meetings are a sort of pre-Cana, but not exactly, Father Flynn explained. Discussions can range from how to pray to how to balance a checkbook.

"This couple is living together, and their lives are pretty much set for now. My goal is to keep them as close to the Church as possible, to know that they have a spiritual family here at the parish if they want it," he said.

The neighborhood walks are a ritual for Father Flynn. He goes out twice a day, like a border collie ensuring that his sheep don't stray too far from the flock. This informal, personal style of ministry has become Father Flynn's hallmark.

"I don't want anyone to call me 'Father' unless they really believe it. If they see me as someone who gives life, someone who gives a spiritual life to people, well then that's the most beautiful thing that anyone could call me," he said.

He's so informal that he doesn't have an official head count of parishioners. He says he only counts those who show up for Sunday Masses, which average 800 to 1,000.

The neighborhood is about 60 percent Hispanic. The Charismatic Renewal and Spanish Cursillo movements are the largest parish groups and have a heavy influence on the liturgy. Father Flynn said that while the 9:30 a.m. Sunday Mass in English is full of life and vitality, the Spanish Mass that follows "is that, plus, plus."

One of the enduring traditions the Hispanic parishioners brought to the parish was the novenario, a nine-day period of mourning when friends visit the family of the deceased to pray and show support.

"It's a sad, but absolutely gorgeous thing to see. There's a goodness in response to tragedy," Father Flynn said.

Because of its intense, recent history, it's easy to forget the parish is 100 years old. Located in the East Tremont section, it's a stone's throw away from the borough's Italian enclave on Arthur Avenue.

The parish was almost exclusively Italian and Irish until the late '60s, when white families began to move out and black and Hispanic families moved in. Those times were tense and racially charged. The school's principal of 31 years, Sister Cecilia McCarthy, O.P., recalled how some old-time parishioners would arrive at the parish at night armed with shotguns as protection from the newcomers.

The parish was founded in 1897 by Father Christopher Reilly, and its original home was an old inn. The cornerstone for a church was laid in 1903. The school was built in 1925 and has been staffed by Sparkill Dominican Sisters ever since.

A fire destroyed the church in 1950, and the present church, a simple red-brick structure on Grote Street, was built a year later. The first Spanish-language Mass was celebrated in 1965.

The parish observed its centennial last Nov. 9 with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal O'Connor.

Longtime parishioner and parish secretary Frances Brown had her wedding planned the year the church burned down. The pastor, Father Denis Blake, gave her permission to have the ceremony in another church. But the Browns chose to marry in the parish gymnasium.

"I was baptized at the parish and St. Martin's was where I belonged. So there we were, surrounded by basketball nets. It was a wonderful wedding," she recalled.

Another connection to the parish's past is found in Albina Gori, who has served as school secretary for the past 42 years.

Father Francis X. Reilly was named administrator in 1969 and pastor the following year. He successfully fought "red-lining," a disinvestment policy practiced by banks in the community.

Father John Plo served as pastor from 1977 to 1989 and presided over much-needed repairs and renovations to the church, school and convent.

After becoming pastor in 1989, Father Flynn organized a 15-member parish team. All decisions are made by consensus by the team, which consists of priests, women religious and lay people.

Father Carlos A. Mullins, a native of Argentina, is parochial vicar. Father Godfrey Anyanka, chaplain at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, is in residence. The parish is served also by Deacons Frankie Vasquez, Rey Rosado and Frankie Lopez.

The cash-strapped parish is currently behind on some renovations. The church needs a new boiler, the school needs a new roof. Other needed repairs will push the bill over $100,000. Father Flynn wonders where the money will come from, but refrains from starting a capital campaign.

"It's enough work for us just to keep the school and church running," he said.

With Sister Cecilia at the helm, the school has been a model of stability. There's been a teacher turnover of only one in the past 10 years.

Current enrollment is 272. When Sister Cecilia arrived, the school had 1,100 students. But in the late '60s, when the city tore down several acres of houses and apartment buildings in the neighborhood to make way for a hospital, the population was decimated.

"People were thrown out of their homes for no reason. We lost 300 families overnight," Sister Cecilia lamented.

The hospital was never built.

About 350 youngsters, teens and adults are enrolled in the religious education program, directed by Sister Peggy Gannon, O.P. About 100 students are of high school age.

"We have a lot of uncatechized youth. They were baptized Catholic, but that was the end of their sacramental training. At some point they realize that something's missing," she told CNY.

Inside the church June 18, the 27 eighth-graders of St. Martin of Tours School practice their procession for graduation. There's an excitement mixed with a sadness, explained Sister Nora McArt, O.P., who's taught at the school for 29 years.

"They're very attached to each other and care about one another. One of the students was being baptized this year, and all of his friends came to his classes as a sign of support," she said.

Each embrace brought more tears. Happy tears, their teacher said, mixed with some sadness from fear that their lives will never be the same.

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