August 4, 2005

A Gift for New York

In Manhattan, on East 117th Street, there stands the immense and venerable Church of St. Paul, with its elementary school, rectory and convent nearby. The parish was established in 1834 by the third bishop of New York, the Most Reverend John Dubois, at a time when anti-Catholic riots and demonstrations were breaking out in all of the major cities of the Northeast. Indeed, shortly before St. Paul’s parish was officially opened, a convent of Ursuline Sisters was burned to the ground by an anti-Catholic mob in the Charlestown section of Boston; and shortly thereafter, the Native American Democratic Association was established to "protect the people of our nation from the machinations of the Pope."

Nonetheless, the community of faith that was St. Paul’s began its mission on the upper East Side of Manhattan with both confidence and enthusiasm; and in the 171 years that followed it has served wave after wave of newcomers to New York, beginning with the French and English, moving on to the Irish and Italians, and now preaching the Gospel and bringing the Lord mainly to Hispanics from South and Central America.

The parish is thriving. Its school is among the best in the archdiocese. Its religious education program is outstanding. Its outreach to the local community is exemplary. And high among the reasons for its extraordinary good fortune are the two religious congregations which care for its ever-more numerous parishioners with unlimited dedication. They are the Institute of the Incarnate Word and the Sister Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Martar‡. Both were founded in Argentina within the last 20 years by the Very Reverend Carlos Miguel Buela, who is the General of the Institute and now residing in Segni, a small rural town about one hour’s drive from Rome.

Some months ago, I learned that the Institute was interested in expanding its mission in North America. Accordingly, through its local provincial, a zealous young priest by the name of Reverend Gustavo Nieto, I was able to arrange a visit with Father Buela in Segni this past July, after concluding meetings with various offices of the Vatican to which I have been assigned by the Holy Father. My purpose was to tell this extraordinary man of God of the heartfelt gratitude of the Archdiocese of New York for the work of his religious congregations in Manhattan and, as well, to invite him to have the Institute assume the leadership of another Hispanic parish in the archdiocese.

The car ride to Segni was a delight. Once you leave the outskirts of Rome, you find yourself in a truly lovely area of the Province of Lazio, blessed with green fields, rolling hills and ancient towns with narrow streets, orange-tile roofs, and-often enough-a remarkably splendid parish church.

Segni is one such. It was founded 500 years before the birth of Christ by a princeling with the rather sinister name of Tarquinius, the Proud. It is situated atop a hill, at the summit of which is its parish church, dedicated to St. Bruno, a bishop of Segni in the early 1100s.

Our car pulled up in front of the parish church. Lined along one side of the street were men, women and children from the town, curious to see the visitors from New York. On the other side were priests, sisters and seminarians, all smiling and enjoying the excitement.

The mayor of the town approached and welcomed my priest-secretary and me with a prepared statement and a declaration from the town council. Next, Father Buela came forward to greet us, to thank the mayor, and to introduce the leadership of both the Institute of the Incarnate Word and the Sister Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Martar.

We were then ushered into the church. With the mayor in the front pew and the priests, sisters, seminarians and the town’s people spread throughout the huge edifice, the pastor went to the podium to recount the history of the town and the church. (We later learned that he is the official historian of Segni and the author of several books about the town.)

The next speaker was the mayor, who presented me with a stack of impressive books about the local area and a medal struck in honor of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who visited Segni some years before her death. The ceremony concluded with my responding to the welcome and reporting that I had been in Segni before, when I was a seminarian. "This is my second visit," I said. "I remember admiring the wonderful works of art in your parish church by Pietro da Cortona and Borgognone many, many years ago. How proud you must be of this magnificent church and this marvelous town!"

Father Buela came forward and asked me to follow him to the seminary of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, located a short distance from the parish church. Joined by Father Nieto, he listened to my request for priests and sisters and promised to send two priests in September to staff one of our Spanish-speaking parishes. My expression of gratitude was immediate and heartfelt.

With our business completed, we returned to the church where I celebrated Mass in Italian, joined again by priests, sisters, seminarians and a multitude of the citizenry of Segni. The liturgy was an inspiration with the concelebrants vested in chasubles and stoles, a mixed choir singing hymns and classical polyphony, and a sense of joyful holiness pervading every corner of the ancient building.

The visit ended in the seminary dining room where along with the seminarians, the faculty, Father Buela, Father Nieto, the Bishop of Segni and the Mayor of Segni, we shared a delicious Italian "pranzo." When dessert was served, a Russian seminarian stood up to lead us in songs from Russia, Italy, Spain, Africa and South America. After him, a seminarian who told me before Mass that he had studied classical guitar in Spain, took the stage. He sang and played his guitar gloriously, and we kept bringing him back for more with our cheers and applause. It was a performance I shall never forget.

The next day, back in the Eternal City, I offered Mass for the Institute of the Incarnate Word and the Sister Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, begging the Triune God to bless them for their kindness to me and their extraordinary generosity to the Archdiocese of New York.

That evening, at dinner in the home of old friends, the father of the family asked me, "What in the world made you go to Segni?" I gave him a long explanation, but might just as well have said: "The Incarnate Word of God and His Virgin Mother, who want the Hispanic community of New York kept close to them and the Church-it was they who brought me here; and I shall ever be deeply grateful."

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York