East Harlem residents and families whose children attend the Catholic school that Pope Francis plans to visit rejoiced Tuesday and expressed hope it may lead to the reopening of their beloved church, closed by the archdiocese because of falling membership.
"We suffered so much since the church closed seven years ago," said Nochgri Marte, 63, a parishioner for 25 years who gathers at weekly Sunday vigils to pray that Our Lady Queen of Angels' sanctuary -- adjacent to the school -- again will be open for worship.
"Maybe our prayers have been answered," she said in Spanish, looking skyward as her eyes welled with tears. "This visit by the Holy Father is a blessing that he has not forgotten us."
Marte recalled parishioners' Christmas tradition of carrying a figure of the infant Jesus in a procession through the neighborhood, a predominantly Latino enclave of families. And she thought of her late friend Carmen Villegas, who fought to keep Our Lady Queen of Angels open.
When Villegas died in December 2012, her friends and family honored her request that her coffin be placed at the steps of the closed church before she was buried. "Poor Carmen," Marte said. "She worked so hard to keep the church open."
Our Lady Queen of Angels school also was in danger of closing. But the school, which now has about 300 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, was able to stay open after the diocese reached out to The Partnership for Inner-City Education to manage it and several other schools in the Archdiocese of New York. The nonprofit organization operates the finance, curriculum and scholarship programs of six Catholic schools.
The pope's plan to visit the school "is affirmation not only for all the schools and the community, but a wonderful blessing and honor of the church's work," said Principal Joanne Walsh, who has been teaching in Catholic schools for 35 years.
The day Francis was named pope "there was a roar of elation throughout this neighborhood," she said. "The kids were cheering and the parents were happy. He made a real connection."
Angelita Andrade, 40, who has three children enrolled there, said: "I love this school. They teach a lot more and they learn Catholicism. I like the pope. He speaks Spanish and he likes Latinos."
In addition to offering the pope a chance to visit with schoolchildren, Our Lady Queen of Angels will host a meeting with about 150 immigrants, to include day laborers, refugees from Africa and Iraq, and unaccompanied minors who entered the United States illegally, fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries, church officials said Tuesday.
"This is great," said Yvette Diaz, 53, whose son, now 28, attended the school. "The Holy Father will bring peace and love to the community."
Carmen Rios, 63, said the pope's visit is a testament to his commitment to recognize the struggle of the poor that includes the neighborhood, where many live in public housing and depend on a food pantry operated by the church's convent of Franciscan nuns.
"The pope speaks the truth and is humble," said Rios, who was among several dozen people lined up to receive food. "Pope Francis knows poverty and the necessities that the poor need."
Andrew Soto, 17, who lives in the adjacent Thomas Jefferson public housing development, said: "It is good to bring an important religious figure to this neighborhood that has been forgotten. Maybe this will encourage improvements to our housing, which is filled with roaches, and whose hallways and streets are filled with gangs."