Fr. Steven Pavignano, OFM

Working almost all my priestly life with African-Americans was hardly on my radar as a child. I was born in Hoboken, N.J., — the oldest of three children — and grew up in the neighboring Jersey cities with my two sisters. My father was a baker and my mother occasionally worked in an embroidery factory. Although we were not a particularly religious family, at an early age I said I wanted to be a priest.

My interest in the Franciscans began in the seventh grade, when a Franciscan friar gave a “vocation” talk at my Catholic school. My real decision, however, would come when I was senior in college. Having observed the friars at Siena College, they guided me to my decision to “try the friars.”

After a class during my seminary studies in Washington, D.C., a classmate put his arm around my shoulder, smiled and asked, “Well, how does it feel to be the only lily in the pond?” The class was in Howard University, a traditionally African-American University, and — like all the students in the class — my smiling questioner was an African-American. I was the only non-black in the class.

My interest in the African-American community began when — as an undergraduate at Siena in 1971 — I took a course called “Afro-American history.” I was amazed at how poorly African-American history was presented in “American” history textbooks and classes at that time. My interest continued to grow over the next several years, and when I reached my seminary studies, I enrolled in several courses at Howard University, where cross-registration was offered.

My first appointment as a priest in 1978 was as associate pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Greenville, S.C., an African-American parish. In almost all my nearly 33 years as a Franciscan friar, I have served either in parishes where the population was predominantly African-American or as campus minister at the University of Georgia, where — because of my ecumenical involvement with African-Americans — I was appointed a permanent member of the Martin Luther King Week planning committee.

Over those years, I have found that African-Americans in general are a deeply spiritual people. This strength of faith grows from a strong sense of their own history and the depth of their faith, acknowledged in the words of a hymn: “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord. Trusting in his holy word, He’s never failed me yet.”

Following my nine years of campus ministry at UGA’s Catholic Center, I was granted a sabbatical during which I studied at the Washington Theological Union and Howard University. After my sabbatical, I served two three-year assignments in African-American parishes in South Carolina — St. Martin de Porres in Columbia and again at St. Anthony’s in Greenville.

After those assignments, where I lived mostly by myself or with only one other friar, I requested to live in a larger friar community. This request brought me to St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford, Conn. Two years ago, Cardinal Edward Egan (then the archbishop of New York) appointed me to my current post as pastor of All Saints Church in Harlem, which is also a friary with six Franciscans residing there.

Since Aug. 1, 2008, I have been the pastor of All Saints, one of five Catholic churches — each with a school — in this well-known district of New York City. While the general perception is that Harlem was always heavily African-American, our old parish did reflect this until the 1950s.

Our church, on the corner of East 129th Street and Madison Avenue, happens to be the largest church building of the five but with the smallest Catholic population. We have about 140 parishioners who actively worship in Sunday Mass with about four or five non-blacks in the congregation. Our school has 180 students.

The presence and influence of All Saints in the wider community, however, goes beyond numbers. We love the people and that love is felt through our involvement in the community. It can be through a sincere simple greeting to a neighbor on the street, providing help through our food pantry, being open to let neighborhood groups use parish facilities, accepting invitations to neighborhood events, or inviting neighbors to take part in our Saturday morning city-provided fitness program (where you’ll see me stretching and straining with the others).

— This essay was published in the spring 2010 issue of The Anthonian magazine while Fr. Steven was serving as pastor of All Saints Church in Harlem.