Why Pope Francis is visiting East Harlem and a Catholic school there this month

Vianel Beauty Salon in East Harlem sits across the street from Our Lady Queen of Angels School, where Pope Francis will meet with pupils, refugees and immigrants Sept. 25.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

If any place in New York City deserves a blessing, it is the sliver of East Harlem that Pope Francis will visit.

On a hot summer’s day, rat poison signs were posted in the soil outside one of two housing projects that flank Francis’ destination, Our Lady Queen of Angels School. Police officers, presumably there to help plan the security surrounding the papal visit, huddled in a courtyard of one of the tall, brick apartment buildings.

Remnants of dog walkers who failed to scoop dotted the sidewalk on one end of the block, which is far from the splendor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the hushed reverence of the 9/11 Memorial — a sun-baked contrast to leafy Central Park.


Those places are also on the pope’s itinerary, but Francis chose to come to the Harlem school on Sept. 25 in large part because its student body — largely immigrant and underprivileged — reflects the population he sees as most deserving of attention and assistance. It sits at the heart of the predominantly Latino and black neighborhood and is an appropriate setting for a pontiff who has spoken movingly about poverty and immigration and warned about the corrosive effects of capitalism.

It is an area that has been overlooked by or spared — depending on your point of view — the gentrification that has rampaged across much of Harlem.

“That’s why I liked this neighborhood. It wasn’t like the new Harlem,” said Sherwin Robinson, who moved onto the block a year and a half ago and will have a front-row seat to the papal visit from the steps of his brick apartment building directly across from the school.

Our Lady Queen of Angels is one of six Catholic elementary schools in Harlem and the South Bronx managed under an agreement with the New York Archdiocese at a time when Catholic schools — seen by Pope Francis as crucial to his mission of serving the poor — are facing extraordinary challenges.

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New York has lost more than 50 Catholic schools since 2011 because of demographic shifts, competition from free, privately run charter schools, and other factors.


“I hope this changes the conversation about urban Catholic education in America,” Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent and chief academic officer at the Partnership for Inner-City Education, which manages Our Lady Queen of Angels and five other schools, said of the papal visit. “I think the conversation in the last decade has been one of pessimism, and I think we are really at a renaissance right now, where everybody, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, realizes these are institutions which serve a unique and important need. I believe his visit will help shine a spotlight on them.”

The Harlem school has 290 pupils, from prekindergarten to eighth grade, most of whom come from families whose incomes qualify them for financial aid.

At the Vianel Beauty Salon across the street, the women washing, coloring and styling their customers’ hair hope the visit also shines a spotlight on the loss of the Our Lady Queen of Angels parish church, which operated adjacent to the school. It was shuttered in 2007, and dozens more have been closed or merged with others since then in the face of diminishing congregations and other factors.

Lili Garcia was 17 when she married the love of her life, Junior, in the church 54 years ago. On a recent afternoon, she was missing the church and her husband, who died one year ago.

Garcia held a black-and-white photograph of the wedding couple, she in a puffy white dress, Junior in a rented tuxedo. She clutched it to her chest and wept.

“It is emotional for me,” Garcia said of the papal visit to the neighborhood.

In addition to meeting a few pupils selected by lottery, Francis also will visit with dozens of refugees and immigrants while at Our Lady Queen of Angels, including some youths who were among the wave of unaccompanied minors who have entered the United States.


Garcia and her friends who run Vianel have been planning for the visit for weeks. Garcia pulled out a folder stuffed with newspaper clippings about Francis, all in her native Spanish. She plans to post them on the walls and windows of the shop as the day of the visit draws near.

Vianel Garcia, who runs the salon, and her mother, Amparo Duarte, spoke of the balloons they planned to fly outside the little shop on the big day and of the party they planned in the salon for people hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff.

“I get goose bumps just thinking about it,” Duarte said as she gave a visitor homemade empanadas, pulled hot from the kitchen in her apartment adjoining the shop. Sure enough, her arms grew tiny bumps despite the heat.

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Not everyone on the block is caught up in papal excitement. Danny Sheeri, who works at a plumbing store a few doors up from the beauty salon, shrugged.

“I’m worried about business. Why do I care about the pope?” Sheeri said as he puffed on a cigarette.


For Lili Garcia, though, the visit may be just what the neighborhood and its residents need.

“I like that finally we have a pope who understands the people,” she said, peering out the salon window at the school and figuring out the best place to stand for the clearest views. She praised Francis for being humble and for helping the church adapt to the times.

“It’s a big blessing to have the pope,” Garcia said. “We know we’re going to have a lot of change. We can feel it.”

The night before Francis arrives, Duarte’s apartment will fill with friends and relatives who will stay the night to avoid being shut out by the security that is expected to close the street the next day. Their dream is to catch Francis’ attention and perhaps draw the famously sociable pontiff across the street for a blessing, maybe a hug or perhaps some chicken and rice.

Twitter: @tinasusman



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