Little Italy parish saddened by pastor’s retirement

BY TEQUILA MINSKY  |  As he has done many times before, Father Fabian Grifone, 88, celebrated afternoon Mass on Ash Wednesday at the Church of Most Precious Blood on Mulberry St.

“I’m supposed to be retired, but not as yet,” he said.

He was referring to the constant murmurings of his imminent retirement that have the Little Italy parish’s members in a state of anxiety.

An architecturally beautiful house of worship, the Church of Most Precious Blood has an ornate front entrance on Baxter St. and a far more modest back side on Mulberry St.

The church has been at the location in Little Italy since 1898. The parish was founded in 1891 by the Franciscan Order.

Father Fabian Grifone on Ash Wednesday in front of the altar at the Church of Most Precious Blood.   Photos by Tequila Minsky
Father Fabian Grifone on Ash Wednesday in front of the altar at the Church of Most Precious Blood. Photos by Tequila Minsky

As for Father Fabian, he said, with emphasis, “I’ve been here for 21 years and four months.”

Pastors have a mandatory retirement age of 75. Yet, while he technically has been retired, he proficiently and happily still performs all his pastoral duties.

A few years back, Father Fabian had a severe health issue that put him out of commission for a while.

“I’m recovered,” he said. “I’ve 98 percent of my strength back. I feel like I’m 55 or 60 years old. I think I can shoulder my pastoral obligations.”

Regarding his tenure, he simply answered, “I’m continuing until they appoint a new pastor.”

From the Mulberry St. rectory, Father Fabian will move to the Franciscan retirement home on Thompson St.

“Hopefully, I’ll come back to visit,” he said. “I’m very close with the people. You never can tell when I can come back to help out.”

Emily DePalo has lived in Little Italy her whole life — “I went to P.S. 130,” she noted — and has been the church’s secretary for two years.

“I was confirmed, had Communion, buried my family at this church. My sister was married here,” she said, listing her lifelong connection to Most Precious Blood.

“We feel bad,” she said about Father Fabian’s leaving. “He loves the parish. He has so much energy and a sharp mind.

Father Fabian daubs ashes on a worshiper’s forehead on Ash Wednesday.
Father Fabian daubs ashes on a worshiper’s forehead on Ash Wednesday.

“We don’t know why they can’t find a Franciscan replacement,” she said, explaining that the Franciscans are giving the church back to the Archdiocese of New York, and though continuing as a Catholic church, it will be unaffiliated with any order.

Prior to the Ash Wednesday Mass, one parishioner paid her yearly fee for four commemorative (electronic) candles lit at the base of different saints.

DePalo greeted George and Mary Tropia, who drove 40 miles from Freehold, N.J., to attend the 12:10 p.m. service.

“Most Precious Blood Church is the jewel of Little Italy,” George remarked. “We don’t know when we’ll see Father Fabian again.”

DePalo explained that about 400 people in total attend the four Masses held every weekend.

“On Saturday, there are some who travel by train from Brewster for the 5:30 Mass,” she noted. Meanwhile, the 2 p.m., Sunday Vietnamese-language Mass draws 200, and is led by a Vietnamese priest.

Marieteresa Porcher Allen comes in from Riverdale with her mother, Karenbeatrice Porcher, every weekend for Mass. She was an altar server with Father Fabian on this past Ash Wednesday.

“She was baptized and had first Communion with Father Fabian,” her mom recounted. “We’re devastated. She’s been crying ever since she learned he’d be leaving. He’s very in tune with the younger generation,” she said of Father Fabian.

Given how vibrant they say the father is, and how he connects so well with young and old alike, some parishioners are calling it age discrimination.

The church was started to serve Italian immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and  early 1900s. They were a devoted population mostly from the Naples region and southern Italy. Eventually, many moved to the outer boroughs and neighboring states.

The largest service is the Mass on the last Saturday of September in honor of San Gennaro, who was martyred in 305 A.D., the namesake of the annual Feast of San Gennaro. The church has a relic, a bone, of San Gennaro.

The first San Gennaro feast was celebrated on Mulberry St. in 1926. As the host church for the 11-day event, the statue of San Gennaro is taken from Most Precious Blood on a procession through Little Italy’s streets.

Proceeds from the feast and from selling religious items year-round pay for the church, which is self-sufficient, DePalo explained. An archdiocese spokesperson said he could not comment on whether Most Precious Blood would continue to be the feast’s sponsor.

The church has seen its share of wear and tear in its 115 years. Of the time he’s been at Most Precious Blood, Father Fabian particularly noted his efforts in taking care of the physical building, which needed a lot of work when he arrived. The sanctuary, hall, rectory, courtyard and facade all have been renovated under his watch. In 1997 Cardinal O’Connor attended the church’s rededication, expressing great approval.