Intro By George Capsis
“Please, I want you to meet Father Walter” was the daily refrain from Nelida Godfrey—the diminutive fount of energy fighting the fusillade of legal tricks launched by landlord Steve Croman to push her out of her apartment and restaurant, Lima’s Taste–she fights back, saying “I am an Inca!”
The hope of a respite from her pleas and the modest pleasure of challenging a defense of this still posturing, but certainly in the West Village aspirating, Roman Catholic faith made me agree.
Our Lady of Pompeii is big and elegant, and it was built in 1929 when at last the Italian emigrants had gathered position and wealth that they wanted to show in a gush of baroque marble. It is opulent.
I sat in the Church office waiting for Father Walter Tonelotto who was praying, when a fiftyish man entered dressed in shirt and pants reserved for cleaning day. When I realized it was Father Walter, I arose and attributed my late rise to my knee operation.
Father Walter looked sad. He looked buried under decades of lost efforts to mature his boyish zeal to become a priest and buried under the reality of witnessing the end of the Italian community in the West Village—as we talked and I looked at his sad eyes I had a sudden thought “I wish I could find him a nice wife.”
I offered that religion is dead and with a faint crackle of energy he replied “Not for everybody” and went on “we have young people with Italian companies in New York and members of the consulate who come here…we are the only church in Manhattan with a service in Italian” He then told me“I have spent 25 years in radio,” and what followed was his joy, his reason to get up in the morning—he was about to launch a multi lingual online religious network. He stood with new life and asked us to walk to the next room where we saw a multitude of screens showing feeds from all over the world “It is a Catholic faith network” he explained, and it is about to be launched.
I glanced at Father Walter as he talked, and he had lost his sadness.
Pompeii: The Village Church
By Father Walter Tonelotto
When I arrived at Our Lady of Pompeii as the pastor of this catholic community, I realized the great importance this church has in this area. Its strategic position at the center of the Greenwich Village, its open door policy and its historical significance make this church one of the most vibrant and welcoming.
The first thing I did was to make sure the doors stayed open till night. Many villagers and tourists go out to eat at night and many of them stop by the church to relax and say a prayer.
One day I saw a Buddhist monk, all dressed in orange, praying in a corner of the church; in another corner a lady holding her dog and praying; a young couple kissing and probably asking God to bless their love; and a young man taking pictures of the different artistic works. Many tourists come in who just say: WOW!! The soft religious Gregorian music helps people to relax. In a few months God’s house has become everybody’s house. Actually we all are children of the same God.
The beauty of this community is that it is very much diversified. The original group was Italian; in fact the church was built by Italians, even though Pompeii has always been a “mixed” congregation. The Irish immigrants have always been present since the beginning of the community; it is very interesting to notice that many Italian families have an Irish last name, which signifies the common trend to intermarriage between Italian and Irish youths.
The second ethnic group is the Filipino. Twenty five years ago, the late Fr. Bob Sison from the Philippines started a Filipino Ministry which served as a focal point of unity and faith for many Filipino families around the five boroughs of the city. Another very interesting group are the Brazilians; many of them are fashion designers and a good number of them are young models. Even though they come from Queens and New Jersey, they feel very welcome and at home. The priests next door (27 Carmine St.) are all Brazilians and this makes it easy for them to be the natural leaders of the Brazilian community.
Something very exciting is happening in the Italian Community. While the original group is in decline, a new phenomenon has appeared during the last two years. A good number of young professionals from Italy started a new Italian Mass on Saturday nights. These are the children of Facebook because they are all connected through social media; they talk to each other at least five times a day and most of them are not afraid to show that they are Catholic.
On Thursday night they gather in someone’s apartment to pray the rosary. They have started a Web TV Channel, called Telemater.org in order to reach out to all the 250,000 Italians who live in New York City; there is even an app for that channel, which everybody can download. The energy and enthusiasm of these young Italian professionals is incredible. They really feel they have found their own home away from home, a point of reference, a welcoming community.
The last newcomers are the Latin American restaurant workers. If you walk up and down Bleecker Street, you can hear Spanish spoken in most of the corners. These are the waiters who come from Staten Island and New Jersey and work in the Village restaurants and shops. It is difficult for them to go to church, because they come in to work long hours. But at least they know that they are welcome and they too are part of our Village.
Someone told me last week: “Father, you have to admit that religion is dead.”
Maybe religion is changing its face and color, but I can tell you that faith and spirituality are growing. I remember two Jewish ladies who came into the church to request that I give them God’s forgiveness. I tried to explain how we Catholics do our confession, and I felt almost honored to be able to mediate the forgiveness of God for these two sincere ladies. Various people come into the church and when they see me praying they ask me to pray for them. I don’t know if they are Catholic or not, but I know that they are searching for a connection with the Supreme; and if I can help, I feel privileged. I am sure that a certain type of religion is disappearing, but maybe a better one is coming back.
Certainly it is exciting being a man of God in the middle of Greenwich Village.