When my grandparents arrived in America almost a century ago, they moved into a second-floor flat on Sherman Street in Bridgeport, across from St. Mary Church and next to the convent where the Sisters of Mercy lived.
They didn’t know what the New World would bring, but they were hopeful it would be better than what the Old World offered. They raised nine kids in that apartment. Then, my grandfather died, leaving my grandmother to raise them alone. Her name was Angelina, or “little angel,” which I’ve always believed was an appropriate epitaph for her life.
During the Great Depression, she sent the boys out to shine shoes on East Main Street and collect coal that had fallen off trucks down by the harbor. In those days, there were no social service agencies to help her. There was only the Church.
Her children went to St. Mary School, and the nuns spared no discipline when it came to my father and his brothers. On Sunday, my grandmother made sure everyone was up in time for Mass.
When I was a young boy, I lived with her for several years and we went to Mass at St. Mary’s together. I still recall its stunning stained glass windows and the beautiful image of the Blessed Mother being assumed into Heaven.
As I knelt in the quiet, the priest intoned the words of the Consecration in Latin. Beside me, my grandmother fingered her rosary beads. She was one of the little gray-haired ladies you saw so often, a Catholic icon from an earlier time, who prayed the Rosary because she believed in its tremendous spiritual power and Our Lady’s unfailing intercession.
As a child, I would lie on the kitchen floor by the stove with my coloring book while she baked two sweet potatoes for us and sat in her rocking chair, praying the Rosary. Someday I’ll learn the true power of her prayers. You see, she was one of those people that secular elitists ridicule nowadays because they pray to God for help and consolation…and because they place their faith in Christ rather than politicians and world leaders.
Years later, while I was at St. Joseph High School, we went to St. Mary School once a week to tutor students. The church was the same, but by then my grandmother was living in a nursing home in Milford.
Another time, I went to confession, and Father Ed Coyne tore into me for some adolescent indiscretion, which prompted me to come out of the dark confessional and vow, “I’m never going back to that guy!” God, however, had different plans. He later became a good friend…and I often went to him for confession. He’d always be sitting in the reconciliation room, praying the Rosary.
A while back, I visited St. Mary’s for the first time in a very long time. The school and convent were gone. The old church, which had been demolished in 1982, was replaced by a beautiful circular building with a tile mosaic of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe over the front doors. The original stained-glass windows surround the interior, and there is a large image of the risen Christ above the altar. A statue of St. Anthony, which once stood in the old church, is at the entrance along with St. John the Baptist, patron of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
An Adoration Chapel was added, where daily Mass is held with Eucharistic Adoration from 8 am to 10 pm Monday through Friday. Above the altar is a replica of the cross of San Damiano from which Christ spoke to St. Francis of Assisi and told him to rebuild his church. On the altar is a relic of Francis.
The mission of St. Mary’s is still the same—to spread the love of Christ to everyone, particularly those who are dispossessed and impoverished, spiritually and physically. That morning I met Father Rolando Torres, who introduced me to a family that had just arrived from Puerto Rico after losing everything in Hurricane Maria. Father found them an apartment, and introduced them to the parish. Their story reminded me of my grandparents’ experience as Italian immigrants arriving in Bridgeport so long ago.
In 2000 years, the mission of the Church has not changed. It is still the source of spiritual nourishment, it is still the source of charity and love, and it is forever the light that leads us to Christ in a darkened world.