They feel blessed.
Our Lady Queen of Angels will be closed Friday to all but staff, invited students and guests for the 45-minute visit by Pope Francis, but even the uninvited are in heaven knowing His Holiness chose to visit to East Harlem.
Pope Francis's visit to an East Harlem school at 4 p.m. Friday "gives the neighborhood a sense of importance and meaningfulness," explained Vernese Merritt, of West Harlem, whose niece attends the school's pre-K program.
Many parents at the school scrambled to arrange for child care as a result of the school's closure, but all of Harlem is delighted by the honor, said Dominique Scalici, 38, an East Harlem mom whose son attends Our Lady Queen of Angels. "Some people are terrified of Harlem, but look where the pope wanted to come!" she said. The pope's visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels, one of six "partnership" Catholic schools that are an innovative model of Catholic-public inner city education, is a tightly and precisely choreographed affair.
He will be greeted on the sidewalk by 250 students and their chaperones from various schools and then walk to a classroom where four tables are set up, each staffed by six students from the third and fourth grades, who have projects (likely to involve environmental themes) they will display to the pontiff. Pope Francis then proceeds to the gymnasium, to meet 150 people connected to various Catholic charities: Day laborers, agricultural and car wash workers, refugees and immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. "Dreamers" brought to the U.S. as children hoping for equality in educational and employment opportunities, are also among the chosen.
Martha Pastor, 40, who has a fourth grader and preschooler at Our Lady Queen of Angels, marveled at her good fortune to be among the adults who will see the pope in person. "I can go to the school, but not my children!" she joked, noting that the pontiff "speaks Spanish: He's comfortable with my language." Pastor, a Mexico-born beautician, is a leader at Comunidad Juan Diego, which helps educate and empower Spanish speaking immigrants.
She hadn't prepared remarks for Pope Francis, but hopes that he will address the plight of undocumented workers during his time in the U.S. -- and that elected officials are inspired by his words to make reforms. The pope specifically asked "to see immigrant people," so it seems likely he will address their concerns, Pastor said. All Pastor wants from the experience "is a blessing for the whole neighborhood."
Students of the school not selected to meet the pope have been studying his life and writing letters they hope will be delivered to him. "You can't call yourself a school, have a world leader come and not use the visit as a great learning opportunity," said Cecilia Greene, director of stewardship for the Partnership for Inner-City Education. Prompted to share any questions they might have for His Holiness, the children expressed curiosity about matters that may not be top of mind for the pope's adult fans: "One student said 'I want to find out if he still collects stamps,'" Greene recounted. Others planned to ask him if he missed his family when he was in Rome, how it feels to be the first pope from Latin America and "how he lost his lung." (The pope reportedly lost a large section of his right lung decades ago following a severe pulmonary infection.)
"They're so excited about this!" Lorie Thomas, 40, said of her three children -- a 7-year-old boy and a 5-year-old daughter and son (yep -- twins) who attend the school. Thomas is a Protestant minister but approves mightily of her childrens' pope-crammed curriculum. They've learned "he spent a large part of his life helping the poor and giving away food and clothes. He goes all over the world being kind to people," and preaching the importance of mercy, love and kindness. "That's what they've all latched on to," Thomas said, and the lesson fills her with joy. Like many of the kids who can't see Francis, "they're sad they don't get to meet him," but they will watch live coverage on television today, she said.
Residents of The Jefferson Houses, the low-income project adjacent to the school on East 112th Street, have steeled themselves for massive inconvenience given the "keep pope alive" security precautions. But even they are excited, with some hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis, said Margie Echevarria, 35, a title examiner and mother of five kids who lives there. All residents were notified that they would not be able to access the building today unless they had ID proving their residency, said Echevarria, who was worried about how her 13-and 15-year-olds would get home after school.
"I may have to be out here waiting for them," she said.