Father George R. Stewart, the pastor of St. Augustine-Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church, in the South Bronx, knew when he was in the second grade that he would be a priest. He came to this church, whose name can be confusing if you don’t notice the hyphen, almost five years ago. Two churches merged to make this one, in 2012. It holds services in Spanish and English, and sometimes partly in Garifuna, the language of an ethnic group of the same name whose principal ancestors were shipwrecked African captives and Caribbean native people. Sometimes when Father Stewart gives a sermon in English, he keeps it short, because when he gets to the end he takes a deep breath and repeats it all in Spanish, or the other way around. Everybody in the church, including the Garifuna members and a large contingent of Nigerians, speaks Spanish or English or both. About sixty per cent of the church’s members are Spanish speakers, and, of those, about sixty per cent are from the Dominican Republic.
Public services have been cancelled, but the church is open from six in the morning to four in the afternoon every day. It’s an Italianate brick building with an intricate rose window above the front doors, flanked by two smaller windows shaped like crosses. Signs ask parishioners to keep twenty feet apart when they come in to pray. Father Stewart cleans the church three times a day. He disinfects the pews and prayer rails and rubs the door handles with sanitizer. Every evening, he performs Mass online, from his study. “It’s been very frustrating,” he told a caller who follows his homilies, which are posted on the church’s Web site. “I would say that a third of my parishioners are on the front line in this plague, as nurses, hospital workers, or home health aides. But as a priest I am not allowed to take all the risks they’re exposed to. I visit the sick at home, in protective gear, but I can’t comfort the ones in hospitals or give last rites to the dying—no visitors are allowed.”
He went on, “But last Sunday morning—Palm Sunday—I was in the rectory next door, where I live, and I heard a lot of commotion, and when I went outside my nose told me there was a fire. The building just behind us was burning. People had rushed out into the street in whatever they had on. The women were without coats, some of the kids were wearing pajamas. I didn’t know what to do, but it was cold outside, our church was open and heated. So I brought them in—thirty or forty families in all. I tried to separate them into family groups and keep the groups apart from one another. Some I led up to the balcony, and some to the classrooms on the third floor. I called our members, and they began to arrive immediately, with clothes and food. We took precautions, but these people needed care right then. We fed and clothed them, and later in the day most of them could go back into their building. That taught me something. As Paul says in Second Corinthians, ‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’ I was feeling thwarted and helpless, but if I’d been making hospital visits that morning I would not have been here to help those people.”
St. Augustine-Our Lady of Victory does its feast-day celebrations up big. On Easter, the African-American women wear elaborate hats, the Garifuna dress in their culture’s signature yellow and black, and some of the Nigerians who are chiefs put on their traditional robes. The boys wear suits, and the girls are brightly beribboned. This year, Father Stewart will do the Easter service in the church by himself online, via his phone, which he sets on a tripod that he uses to hold his bicycle. “It’s strange when I’m preaching and just looking at my phone, but I know my words are going out to our members, and I know they’re with me,” he said. “This is a very poor part of the Bronx. The people are resilient and resourceful and hopeful, and they have everything to teach us. I want to always walk with them.”
Some of the members don’t have computers or iPhones, but they do have flip phones. Maria Peguero, the church’s pastoral associate, who was born in the Dominican Republic, leads small-group prayer meetings every day. “I don’t know what to do, so I ask Father Stewart, and he says, ‘Pray more,’ ” she said. “I pray so hard, every day. I pray by myself, and with my husband. I call four or five members at one time, and we pray on a conference call. So many people right now are living in suffering and darkness, but that is not the last word, because God is in charge with us, and he will bring us something better.” ♦
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