February 7, 2002

Highbridge Smiling

Mrs. Antonia Diaz was smiling brightly. She had witnessed from the very beginning the transformation of her beloved Highbridge community in the Bronx. She had cheered it, and she had worked hard for it. Ninety-two years young and a longtime resident, she arrived early for the celebration on Dec. 19, and was immediately led to a front-row seat.

The "celebrities" were huddled together on a speakers’ platform. They included Mr. Mel Martinez, secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Mr. Dennis P. Ryan, acting commissioner of housing for the State of New York; Ms. Jerilyn Perine, commissioner of housing for the City of New York, and Msgr. Donald Sakano, director of housing for the Archdiocese of New York, along with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and me. Outside the tent that covered the speakers’ platform and the seated guests, hundreds stood in the bright noonday sun; and all were smiling as broadly as Mrs. Diaz.


Before filing into the tent, those who were to speak at the ceremony had met in an office of Our Lady of Mercy Clinic to have the Highbridge development explained in detail by Msgr. Sakano with the help of an ingenious, three-dimensional map of the community that filled an entire wall of the office. Each building could be seen in miniature from on top. Those with beige roofs were completed constructions of the Highbridge Community Housing Development Fund or HCHDF, which Msgr. Sakano, priests and laity of the neighborhood had sponsored in order to provide safe, healthy residences for over 1,000 families. Those with white roofs were buildings under construction–some of them apartments and some of them individual dwellings. Open spaces in yellow indicated areas where new housing, especially for the elderly and disabled, was being planned.

"Cardinal, you should have seen Highbridge before all of this began," one of the neighborhood representatives declared. "Everyone looked down on us. They said we were hopeless." He caught his breath and went on. "Muggings, drugs, prostitution–you name it and we had it big-time. But that’s all behind us. Highbridge is building and building fast. We’re becoming a really great place for kids, for old folks, for everyone." From the men and women crowded into the hall outside the office came forth a roar of agreement and approval. The smile on the representative’s face reached from ear to ear.

When the ceremony under the tent finally got started, Msgr. Sakano led us in an opening prayer. The speakers then came to the microphone, one after another, and all were most enthusiastic in their praise for what had been achieved. Secretary Martinez pointed to Highbridge as a compelling example of what can be done when local religious and community groups join forces with federal, state and city government to respond to the people’s most urgent needs. If some still question the effectiveness of faith-based undertakings, he observed, they need only come to Highbridge to be convinced.

Acting Commissioner Ryan and Commissioner Perine congratulated HCHDF in glowing terms and promised continued support from the state and the city. As Commissioner Perine returned to her place, Mayor Giuliani leaned over to me. "In the 1960s and 1970s, there was no one here except the Catholic parishes," he whispered. "And I include the City," he added pointedly.

With that, the mayor rose from his seat and walked to the podium. The crowd under the tent and outside the tent broke into applause, chanting the now-familiar "Rudy, Rudy." It was obvious that His Honor was enjoying himself thoroughly. When the applause finally subsided, he heaped praise on everyone involved in the remaking of Highbridge. "It is the kind of initiative that makes New York the ‘Capital of the World,’ " he proclaimed. The crowd once again broke into applause.

I followed the mayor to thank the HCHDF, Msgr. Sakano, the pastors of Sacred Heart parish and St. Francis of Assisi parish, Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center, the speakers of the day, and especially the dedicated and courageous Highbridge community. "It’s great to be in Highbridge," I declared, "and it’s great to be a New Yorker."

As the ceremony concluded, Msgr. Sakano invited us all to follow him on a walk through the neighborhood, stopping at completed buildings, at buildings under construction and at land being cleared for construction. It was a delight to observe the truly radiant smiles on the faces of the young and old, particularly in areas where new housing was to be built. I walked alongside Secretary Martinez. "This is marvelous," he kept exclaiming. "This is marvelous."

Our journey ended in a splendid recreation center which the HCHDF had developed in conjunction with the City and which the Catholic Youth Organization of Catholic Charities staffs. Inside hundreds of youngsters were gathered to hear the Highbridge Voices perform under the baton of their marvelously gifted director, Bruno David Casolari.

This is not just a group of children singing. It is a highly disciplined and genuinely musical ensemble that performed with professional precision. I said a word of welcome, and Secretary Martinez next came to the microphone. First in English and then in Spanish, he told the crowd gathered in the center, many of whom were of Latino background, how proud he was of all that they were doing. "I came to the United States at 16 without my parents," he recounted in Spanish, "and I know how hard it can be for young people in our nation today." Microphone in hand, he moved away from the podium. "But if we work hard and keep ourselves committed to what is right and decent," he said with a good deal of emotion in his voice, "we can fulfill our dreams. This is what America is all about."

When Acting Commissioner Ryan and Commissioner Perine had spoken, we all thanked the Highbridge Voices, the Catholic Youth Organization staff and the multitude of neighborhood residents that crowded into the center. I then went directly Sacred Heart Parish School, just a few blocks away. The young pastor, Father Michael Sepp, and the extraordinary principal, Ms. Joanne Walsh, were waiting for me on the curb.

"I would like a complete tour," I told them, and with the brightest of smiles they agreed to provide it. Catholic schools have a very special place in my heart, and Sacred Heart is no exception. With over 600 children enrolled, it is in perfect order. The children are mannerly. The teachers are enthusiastic. The principal can recite the name of every student who passes in the corridor. And the quality of instruction is as excellent as one could hope to find in any school–state-controlled or private–in any corner of the nation.

As I left to return to the Catholic Center, a group of women were standing across the street waving. "The lady in front is Mrs. Diaz," I said to my priest secretary. "I am almost sure. She is the one with the bright smile." My priest secretary could not be certain. Nor, in truth, could I. For in Highbridge, on Dec. 19, everyone–simply everyone– was smiling.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York