Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Old Neighborhood

This morning, I took the D Train to the Bronx and walked west on Fordham Road to explore my old neighborhood, still dominated (visually at least) by the great Gothic Towers of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church. Walking west on Fordham from the Grand Concourse, my first reaction was how much has changed and how little has changed. The storefronts are all different. I didn't see any stores I remembered in the old buildings. But the buildings, of course, are still the same. More importantly, the hustle and bustle, the crowded busy-ness of  Fordham Road was essentially the same. The people populating and shopping on that famous street are ethnically different from the crowds of 50 years ago, but they are basically doing the same things!

At Jerome Avenue, Tolentine's great Gothic towers appeared a few blocks away. I crossed Davidson Avenue, then Grand Avenue, passed where Weber's Bakery once nourished a neighborhood, then passed the Aqueduct, and stood at last in front of my childhood address - 2374 University Avenue. Again, while the 1st-floor storefronts were all different, and even the front entrance slightly altered, the building itself - a sold brown brick, 3-sided curved building dating back to around the beginning of the 20th century - stood in its solitary separateness across University Avenue from the church. I couldn't resist crossing Fordham Road to Devoe park to photograph 2374 in all its solitary splendor!

Then, back across the street to the church - in its time the unquestioned community center of the neighborhood. How well I recall the crowds spilling out of the church - upstairs and downstairs - on Sundays after each of the 13 Masses. The Lower Church is no more - converted decades ago to other parish uses. But the great Upper Church is little changed on the outside, and I found it only moderately altered on the inside. Its dark Gothic nave was as long and impressive as ever. The baldachin still stood over the altar. The light from outside still streamed through great window which portrays Saint Nicholas of Tolentine celebrating Mass and interceding for the souls in Purgatory (whose patron saint he is). 

I noticed a few alterations in the Upper Church. Some were dictated by the loss of the Lower Church - e.g., statues of Saint Nicholas and Saint Rita standing on their lovely little transept altars, somewhat incongruously in front of the stained-glass windows depicting them. And Our Lady of Good Counsel has also been brought upstairs and given her own chapel of sorts in what used to be the Baptistry. (The font is now in the sanctuary where the pulpit used to stand, and the pulpit - lowered in height - has been moved to the other side of the same sanctuary. This curious diminishing of pulpits is one of those nearly universal oddities that followed upon the Council's call for greater emphasis on proclamation and preaching!)

The two principal side altars - to the Sacred Heart and to the BVM  -have also for some reason been reversed in relation to the main altar, but have otherwise been well preserved. I think the Augustinians deserve great credit for maintaining this beautiful building as an attractive place of prayer and worship and thus the center of a still vibrant, and now multi-cultural, multi-lingual (English, Spanish, Vietnamese) parish community. It was a treat to walk around the old neighborhood today, but it was a special delight to spend time in reminiscence and prayer in the church that sanctified my early years.

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