David Gonzalez reports from corners of the city in words and pictures.
Carmen Villegas’s last wish was to lie in repose for just one hour inside Our Lady Queen of Angels. The modest brick church on East 113th Street in East Harlem had been the center of her life since childhood. When the Archdiocese of New York closed it in 2007, she led a group of the faithful in weekly services on the sidewalk, hoping their prayerful protest would persuade the hierarchy to briefly reopen the sanctuary.
What she so yearned for in life was denied her in death. She succumbed to breast cancer last week, at the age of 58. Although friends, family and politicians asked the archdiocese – in writing, even — to open wide the doors for one final adios, it did not.
So it came to pass that on a rainy December Monday, her white coffin lay under a tent in front of the shuttered church. Gold drapes hid the locked doors, and a statue of the Virgin Mary – Carmen’s own – graced the steps. In a glorious transformation, a dead-end street in El Barrio became a grotto of rain-slicked asphalt ringed by towering housing projects.
“At the birth of Christ there was no room at the inn,” said Frances Mastrota, who served with Carmen on the local community board. “How come the archdiocese in 2012 can’t open the doors? What does it cost? There’s still no room at the inn.”
Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the archdiocese, said he had not seen the letter that had been hand delivered last Friday, and was unable to find out who – if anyone – had read it. He offered condolences to the family, but said the sanctuary would stay closed.
The pain was palpable on Monday as the crowd gathered on the cul-de-sac of 113th Street, awaiting the hearse that would take her body from her funeral Mass in Washington Heights to her final homecoming. Politicians, activists and church ladies traded stories, hugs and tears.
Carmen spent most of her life in East Harlem. Though she worked as a medical administrator at several hospitals, her true passion was her church and community. She led retreats, organized parish events and religious feasts. When old-timers died, she made sure the Mass was celebrated with traditional music from the hills of Puerto Rico. On Three Kings Day, she threw a big party at her home, making good on a family vow to never let the traditions vanish.
She never married or had children – she once thought of becoming a nun — yet she cared deeply about young people, urging them to get an education. On top of all that, she was an ardent Puerto Rican nationalist.
To her friends, it all made sense.
“She wrapped everything together,” said Eduardo Padro, a State Supreme Court justice who lives in East Harlem and belonged to the parish. “Do I call her a feminist? A Puerto Rican? A Catholic? I can’t give her just one of those labels. She was all of them, all the time.”
Mr. Padro, who penned last week’s letter to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, knew the church’s closing was a body blow to Carmen, but it did not dim her faith – even after she was arrested and charged with trespassing the last time she had been inside in the church in 2007.
“There was never the question of breaking with the church,” he said. “There was no hurt with Christ.”
Her friends – the women who prayed and discussed scripture with her for years on the sidewalk – agreed. Patty Rodriguez said Carmen always reminded her that the priests and prelates were just as human, and fallible, as she.
“Carmen gave us hope when we thought there was none,” she said. “The archdiocese for most Catholics is the end-all and be-all. You never question; you just follow. She taught us the power of protest.”
None of this was a surprise. Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, a leading scholar of Latino religious practice, said women like Carmen – whom he admired as a grass-roots leader – have long nurtured the faith in their homes and neighborhoods, even if their relationship with the hierarchy was at times fraught.
“When it comes to material Christianity, the picture of the Sacred Heart, the holy water, visiting the graves of those who passed, the prayers, women are integrated into that whole scene,” he said. “When you have a patriarchy that says you can’t do some things, you also create a matriarchy that does all these other things. In terms of religion, these most basic, symbolic things are controlled by women.”
The crowd stood and sang “Ave Maria” as it welcomed the shiny black hearse when it turned onto 113th Street. Carmen’s coffin was gently placed before the church, while Gloria Quinones, an activist and friend, draped a small Puerto Rican flag on it. Margarita Barada, a spry, white-haired woman, said through her tears that they would pray a decade of the rosary for Carmen.
One by one, women stepped forward to recite a Hail Mary, then stepped back to the coffin, each holding a rose aloft. Nearby, a woman stood stoically clutching a large crucifix. The rain fell. People cried.
When the final Amen was uttered, Carmen Villegas – who loved her church to her dying breath — was encircled by an honor guard of her sisters. On the sidewalk.