Franciscan Influences: Charism of New York City Community

Tony Lopresti Features

This reflection is part of a series by Holy Name Province’s partners-in-ministry. The previous, written by a member of the board of Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Retreat, was published in January. Here, a parishioner of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in New York City describes the impact that the friars and the Franciscan community have had on him.

Author Tony Lopresti

Author Tony Lopresti

In 1985, when I met Diane Dragonetti, who would become my wife, my life had a very hazy spiritual center. I am lucky that she helped me to strengthen my spirituality, increase my involvement in the Church, and eventually to become an active participant in a Franciscan community. But initially, her social justice activism at the Catholic Center at New York University — especially cooking every Sunday morning for 500 homeless people — intrigued me.

I began to accompany her and I started to enjoy it very much. I found a community at NYU, a renewed connection to my Catholic upbringing and education, and a deepening and maturing relationship with Diane. In 1987, we married at the Catholic Center and a few years later, we celebrated there the baptism of our first child, a boy.

We live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When our son was an infant, the subway commute to Greenwich Village early on Sunday mornings was easy. But as he grew, and we needed to carry more and more baby equipment, the commute became a chore. Sad as it seemed, we needed to find a church community nearer to our home. Holy Name of Jesus Church at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 96th Street was just a few blocks away. While I had passed it often, I never entered or paid it any attention. The Holy Name Province of Franciscan Friars had just accepted an invitation from the Archdiocese of New York to take over the parish and to work together with the sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. We went. We’ve never looked back.

Experiencing Deepening Faith
The atmosphere at Holy Name enveloped us with welcome and with the invitation to become part of the parish, part of the ministry, part of the community. Our second child, a girl, was baptized at Holy Name in 1993. Our children went to public school but attended religious education classes at Holy Name.

With the help of our pastor, the late James Hynes, OFM, Diane organized what we called “Family Religious Education,” where the parents would attend classes every Sunday with the children. By attending as a family, the parents underscored the importance of continually deepening our knowledge and understanding of our faith and our church. We kept attending until our children were ready for their confirmation classes near the end of middle school.

The author, on left, with Michael Tyson, right, and an “Angel of Peace” during this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Interfaith Peace Walk. (Photo courtesy of Tony)

During that time, Michael Tyson, OFM, arrived, and he re-energized our social justice efforts and began regular meetings, regular actions and training courses. In 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, we sensed that our wider community felt extremely uneasy. We sensed that people were seeking to express their opposition, but couldn’t find a way. There are dozens of faith communities representing many religions within a relatively small radius of our parish. Each had a social justice committee. We thought that perhaps we could join some of those efforts together in a joint interfaith, ecumenical endeavor. We decided with Fr. Mike to organize a “peace walk” where we would join other faith communities on a mini-pilgrimage, visiting several houses of worship where we would pray together for peace. We decided to hold the walk on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a holiday always celebrated on a Monday — so the walk could include our brothers and sisters from different religions and would not interfere with Friday, Saturday or Sunday services. And it would be an appropriate tribute to the memory of the Rev. Dr. King.

We expected 50 people to attend. We hoped for 200. More than 1,000 people joined that walk — including veterans groups, local elected officials, neighbors speaking several different languages and people from distant communities. Bus and taxi drivers honked their horns. People leaned out of their apartment windows and poured out of restaurants and cafes offering their support and encouragement.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Interfaith Peace Walk has become a yearly tradition in the neighborhood. We have visited and prayed in Catholic and Protestant churches, synagogues, mosques — even a Buddhist church. As one pastor put it, “Everyone knows that on Martin Luther King Day you show up at 2 p.m. at Holy Name Church and you will be taken somewhere.” The walk has led to many other interfaith expressions and to a loosely organized group of clergy and laypeople who have grown to know each other and to trust each other. Another pastor said that if he gets a call from any of them seeking help or support he knows he can say “yes” because of the trust that has developed over the years.

This year, for the 14th annual walk, Fr. Mike, now assigned to Siena College outside Albany, N.Y., came back to lead us, along with a 10-foot tall stilt dancer dressed as the Angel of Peace. Fr. Mike’s booming voice could be heard for blocks as he encouraged walkers and onlookers to sing and to chant for peace and justice.

We’ve been through several changes of pastor — Jerome Massimino, OFM, the late Francis Gunn, OFM, Dan Kenna, OFM, and now Larry Ford, OFM. Despite those transitions, and the rotation of other friars in and out of the parish, the basic Franciscan charism has remained consistent — a Gospel-centered joyful love, solidarity, ecological stewardship and caring for the poor. We have a very diverse parish with Masses in three languages: English, French, and Spanish. The Franciscan celebration of all life and all people holds us together. We are a strong and committed community supporting each other, working with each other, ministering to each other. We feel that the friars and the sisters have brought St. Francis to our neighborhood. He will be with us always.

Tony Lopresti, a native of Philadelphia, is the director of video production for the New York City Police Department and mime director at the Festival Musica sull’Acqua on Lake Como in Italy, where he choreographs non-verbal performances for festival orchestras. He also teaches mime in various pastoral forms. The author — who served for several years as chair of the social justice committee of Holy Name of Jesus Parish — and his wife, Diane, have two children, Sam and Natalia.

Related Links