Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bronx Gothic

Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (c.1246-1305) was an Italian Augustinian Friar, noted as a preacher, peacemaker, and confessor, and for his generosity to the poor (hence the Augustinian tradition of blessing and distributing "Saint Nicholas Bread"), and his prayer for the souls in purgatory. Pope Eugene IV recognized 30 miracles attributed to Nicholas when he canonized him in 1446 - the first Augustinian friar to be canonized. Today is his feast in the Augustinian calendar (as it was in the universal one until the brutal calendar reform of 1969). Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him patron of the souls in purgatory in 1884. Many Augustinian churches are dedicated tin his name - among them the great Gothic parish church of my childhood - referred to by some in those days as "the cathedral of the Bronx." Indeed, closing the celebration of the parish's 50th anniversary on September 10, 1957, New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman said, "Very few cities in the United Sates have cathedrals which have the beauty of your parish church." (The photo at left is from Easter 1963.)

Anglicized as Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, the new parish in the University Heights Fordham section of the Bronx (between St. John's, Fordham, and St. John's Kingsbridge) had celebrated its first Mass in a neighborhood garage on April 22, 1906. From the start, it was staffed by priests of the St. Thomas of Villanova Province of the Order of Saint Augustine. Fordham Road was then still largely an unpaved country road, but by my time that street and the densely populated neighborhood it served had become a bustling urban area of stores and apartment buildings. My parents were married in Tolentine's 1400-seat lower church in February 1947, and I was baptized there some 14 months later - though by the time I was conscious of such things the great Gothic 1200-seat upper church was finished and fully in use. (It was finally consecrated on September 9, 1957, by a Dutch Augustinian bishop then serving in Rome as papal sacristan, who also confirmed me later that month on the Province's patronal feast day, September 22.)

In post-war Catholic New York, parish and neighborhood were still often largely one and the same. That was certainly true of the Augustinians' Tolentine parish in the University Heights Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx - as it correspondingly was just a short walk west across the Harlem River at the Paulist Fathers' Good Shepherd parish In the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan's Washington Heights. In many ways, these were largely self-contained communities, from which, of course, people went out to work elsewhere in the city and within which the wider world's influence was certainly felt, but which when I was growing up met most of our day-to-day needs, both social and spiritual.

A lot of what made the Bronx beautiful (and its parish neighborhoods such great places to live and to grow up in) is now gone forever. But the University Heights Fordham section of the Bronx remains a bustling commercial and residential urban area, and the beautiful Gothic church still stands as the neighborhood's beating heart - still serving a diverse population, but now with Masses in Spanish and Vietnamese.

Tragically, the parish high school from which I graduated 50 years ago on June 25, 1965, was closed in 1991. But next month, the surviving members of the Tolentine High School Class of 1965 will gather (althoough sadly not there or even in the Bronx) for our 50th high school reunion. Some of those who will be attending are men I probably have not seen in 50 years, although I have in recent years reconnected at least superficially with a few of them by the modern miracle of Facebook. The reunion will include a "photo loop" of school days' pictures, a "memories table," posing for a new class photo, and of course a DJ playing music from our teen years. It will be simultaneously strange and wonderful. It won't bring back the world we have lost, but it should surely remind us what human and spiritual treasures that world contained.

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