Transition at St. Augustine Church in Morrisania
Story and photos by Laura Dimon
Until the 1940’s, the congregants of St. Augustine Church in Morrisania, South Bronx were mainly German and Irish Catholics.
But during the end of the Depression and the beginning of World War II, whites started to leave the area. Incoming African-Americans—who had previously been Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal—often became Catholic to help their children get into the area’s parochial schools.
Eventually, St. Augustine became a predominantly African-American church.
Some time in the next few months, the church will undergo another major transition: St. Augustine Church, built in 1849, will be torn down.
The Rev. Thomas Fenlon, 76, who was a priest at St. Augustine for the past ten years, said that the church was built “big and cheap,” and that the deterioration probably started “a week after the church was built.”
He said that although the roof was replaced in the 1990’s, the contractor never finished the job, and Fenlon recalled hearing stories of shingles flying off the roof when there was a strong wind. He said that by the time the ceilings were caving in, it would have cost about $6 million just to make the structure safe.
It will cost about half that amount to tear it down.
In January of 2012, after the last mass at St. Augustine, the parish of about 350 merged with Our Lady Victory on Webster Avenue, a parish of the same size.
Rev. Fenlon proposed and led the merger. He said that at first it was a “honeymoon” but now there are “potholes in the road,” describing the hardships of merging two churches. Later, he added, “maybe more like trenches than potholes.”
It’s a time of transition. His church population is changing—Puerto Ricans are leaving and Dominicans are coming. The neighborhood is changing, with an influx of West African immigrants arriving.
And Catholicism is also changing—Fenlon said there is “a huge number of people who were baptized Catholic that no longer associate with the church.”
Luckily, Fenlon is no stranger to change, and he is quick to adapt.
He is tall and thin with white hair and blue eyes. He resembles an Irish Catholic Paul Newman, so it’s somewhat surprising when he starts speaking in fluent Spanish. “Si!” he responded enthusiastically when asked if he gives sermons in both languages. His fluent Spanish is the result of a “crash course” in the language in Puerto Rico 50 years ago. After World War II, he said, there was an influx of Puerto Ricans into New York City, and the Catholic Church needed more Spanish-speaking priests. Fenlon welcomed the opportunity to adapt to New York’s increasing Hispanic population.
He uses his Spanish regularly, but accommodating the church’s heavily African-American, English-speaking population also required some additional cultural flexibility on his part.
Around 1970, Fenlon explained, St. Augustine became the “first Catholic church in the archdiocese in the New York area to have a gospel choir.” He estimated that half of St. Augustine’s English-speaking parish was drawn from other zip codes because of the music. They were mainly African-Americans, but he said there were also “six or eight” white people. Fenlon embraced and prioritized the tradition of gospel when he came to St. Augustine in 2002. He said he loves the gospel music, but that not everyone does.
The cultural clashes between the two merging churches are particularly obvious with the gospel music.
Marva Croker, 71, is an African-American churchgoer at the newly named St. Augustine Our Lady Victory Church. She explained that African-Americans like to “clap and be happy” but said, “The Spanish people are wondering why we’re jumping around. They might want a more solemn experience.”
The tension is not only between the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking parishioners, though. Fenlon explained that many black immigrants—whom he called “by and large somewhat conservative”—came from countries colonized by the English where Catholicism was rooted in an “Anglican and Methodist” tradition. He said, “Catholicism grew up in its shadow” and therefore in traditional English masses, hymns are preferred over gospel music, which has roots in slavery and Pentecostalism. He said that in the South Bronx, standard English-style mass, which he finds “blah,” is not that different from any English mass at any white Catholic church. Fenlon said, “The people from Trinidad and Jamaica did not come for the gospel African-American tradition; it’s very foreign to them.”
Pauline Charles, who is from Antigua, used to attend mass at St. Augustine’s but now goes to another church. She said, “It’s not that I don’t like the gospel…[but] I’m from a culture where we say more hymns. It’s my belief that the hymns should go along with the readings of the day.”
Charles, who is in her early 50s, said she actually listens to gospel music at home, but that when she goes to Church, she wants a traditional mass. With gospel, she said, “You’re just sitting in a concert. That’s not my way of celebrating the mass.”
She said that she feels the mass at St. Augustine Our Lady Victory “no longer has Catholic meaning, period.”
Croker said that having the same skin color as the African immigrants, who also attend the English-speaking sermons, does not mean they worship in the same way. “They are Africans,” she said. “We are African-Americans. There’s a difference.” She continued, “We all know there’s one God, but we want to worship him our own way.”
Culture can also affect the social environment within the Church. Croker said that an African-American church tradition is what she termed the “meet n’ greet.” She said conversing with fellow parishioners goes far beyond “hi and bye.” People could often be heard asking each other, “How was your week? How was your doctor’s appointment? Where’s your husband?” She summed up the “meet n’ greet” as a time for “gettin’ remedies and recipes.”
Fenlon explained that all Catholics do not share the same beliefs, and older priests are not necessarily more conservative.
He said that when he became a priest 51 years ago, mass was in Latin and the church was “very rigid.” Although many Catholic leaders today are “right wing, centralized, and conservative,” he said, older priests were products of Pope John XXIII’s anti-hierarchy revolution in the 1960s, which sought to modernize the Church.
Rev. Fenlon lamented the return to the old structure when John Paul II became Pope in 1978.
“Younger priests don’t know what it was like 50 years ago,” he said, adding that older priests actually have a “more open spirit.”
On gay marriage, he said, “I have a nephew who’s gay and he’s a wonderful man and I love him and I’m not going to criticize him. It’s hard enough to be celibate as a heterosexual person and I freely chose that. [Being gay] is not a free choice.”
Perhaps Fenlon’s displays of adaptability—learning Spanish, embracing gospel, and becoming open to gay marriage—are already rubbing off on his parishioners. They were devastated about the closing of St. Augustine at first, but they are starting to look ahead.
Charlena Martin, 64, had been going to St. Augustine since 1972.
Of the decision to close St. Augustine, she said, “It hurt me in my heart, in my toes. But we have to work together and be one community now.”
Croker agreed, saying, “We’re clashing a little bit, but we will get over that. I never give up. I have hopes that it will get better. It can’t get worse.”
And of Rev. Fenlon, Croker noted that he is “concerned and tries very hard” to make everyone happy.
“Hopefully,” she added, “before he leaves this world he can see some results.”