The Bronx is Burning

by | Nov 13, 2019 | Blogs, Sex Abuse Crisis, Spirituality

The Bronx is burning. Not with arson or violence, but with the love of God and the prayers of his faithful ones. 

The Bronx was the borough on fire. At least that’s what earned its reputation in the 70’s and 80’s. When Americans turned on New York Baseball, they saw aerial views of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx surrounded by neighborhoods of buildings literally on fire. “The Bronx is burning” became a catchphrase for outsiders and a reality for people living in the epicenter of poverty, crime, and arson. There, in the South Bronx, wedged between warehouses and drug rehabilitation centers, stands a medieval, French-style monastery of cloistered Dominican nuns.

I met the sisters on my first day of ministry at St. Ignatius School, which is across the street from their monastery. First I heard the Angelus bells ringing, echoing throughout the neighborhood. Surprised and confused, I looked out the window and saw a beautiful steeple piercing the pale blue sky and asked, “What is that?” The principal smiled and said proudly, “Those are the nuns! They helped start our school. You should go introduce yourself, you’ll love them.” After school I knocked on the door and was greeted by Sr. Mary of the Sacred Heart, who immediately called the other sisters, and I received a round of warm, prayerful hugs. They gave me a tour of their monastery and shared its history, and I quickly learned that hospitality is at the core of their charism. 

130 years ago the Archbishop of NYC asked the sisters to establish a convent in the Bronx, which was then farmland. Today the Bronx looks very different, but their mission remains the same: to pray for the church. The Dominican Sisters of Corpus Christi Monastery are cloistered and contemplative, which means their life is an ordered rhythm of prayer and work in silence and quiet reflection. They spend their entire lives within the monastery, praying for the church and the world. Specifically, their mission is to pray for the clerical leaders of our Church: Pope Francis, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, and all priests and seminarians in the Archdiocese of NY. They pray for an increase in men to respond to God’s call, for the priests’ sanctification, and for all the people to whom they minister. Everyday, each sister chooses a different priest or seminarian and offers all her prayers for him through her work and devotions. They proudly call themselves the spiritual mothers of the Church.

Timothy Cardinal Dolan (of the Archdiocese of New York) with Sr. Mary of the Sacred Heart (right).

I couldn’t believe it, these nuns are praying for me, for us! Class pictures of seminarians and religious cover the walls. Candles are lit next to beautiful statues and holy icons (many of which they paint themselves), and sweet incense fills the hallway. This is a house of love. And like all good mothers, they love their children to the point of prayers, even tears.

Just over one year ago the sex abuse crisis hit. Catholic priests and bishops made headlines as perpetrators of abuse and cover-ups. Detailed reports from religious communities and dioceses are now being released and it feels like the world is watching and saying, “the Church is burning”. It has evoked righteous anger, profound sadness, and confusion.  The scandal is deeply upsetting, and we’re still wondering how to heal. I turn to our spiritual mothers. Former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick and other high-profile abusers, have long histories in the Archdiocese of New York. His is just one of many names that have been on the sisters’ daily prayer list, and is now listed for crimes and cover-ups. 

When asked how the sex abuse crisis affects her and the community, Sr. Mary of the Sacred Heart’s typically joyful smile turned into a soft face of disappointment. She has read the reports and knows what evils were committed. “It is devastating, [she takes a long pause] but a majority of priests are holy and faithful.” Her smile grows again as she names many good priests in her life, many like fathers, some as brothers, and all as sons. Priests and religious throughout NYC take turns celebrating mass for the sisters. The monastery even hosts a small cottage for priests and religious to make retreats. From inside their cloister, the sisters experience the breadth of the clergy that most Catholics never have the chance to do. They meet the men for whom they pray, hear their experiences, and ask for prayer requests, so they can bring faces and stories to God. So when news of the clergy sex abuse crisis broke, Sr. Mary of the Sacred Heart says their first response was simple: “we intensified our prayer.”

This is not the first time the sisters have been surrounded by darkness. As their neighborhood crumbled around them in the 70s and 80s, the sisters did not leave. They remained to pray for the world and be a sign of Christ’s light and love. Over time, their prayers were answered. Today, the South Bronx is a center of education, growth, innovation, and hope. Community gardens and street art color the neighborhood and have given rise to a new catch phrase that Bronx citizens are proud to say, “The Bronx is blooming.” 40 years ago this would have been unimaginable. But nothing is impossible for God. That’s the mystery of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. These women are living proof that God keeps His promises. Including His promise to remain with His Church. 

Street art in the South Bronx that says, “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.”

I playfully joked with Sr. Mary of the Sacred Heart that I noticed the Jesuits missing from their wall of prayer — we need prayers too! She smiled and laughed, promising to start praying right away, on the condition that I promised to give her a list of Jesuits in formation! These women are now my friends, spiritual sisters and mothers. I join them for mass every Monday before teaching at St. Ignatius School. Our interactions are quiet and brief, but their love is real and palpable. Knowing that they pray for me is consolation in moments of darkness and a reminder that everything is a gift from God, especially my vocation. These women are my formators as much as any theology professor: they make me a better Jesuit, and they’re helping me become a better priest.

But most of us don’t live in beautiful monasteries with daily eucharist and interaction with plenty of good and holy priests and religious. We live busy lives with complicated relationships to each other and the church. What are we supposed to do? Whatever we do, we can’t do it alone. Did you know you can send the Jesuits a prayer request and a Jesuit will pray for you in private devotion and at mass? Check it out here! We, the Church, the mystical body of Christ, are a family. We are the children of God and He has not left us orphans. 1

It doesn’t always feel like it, so let’s try the Dominican recipe for hope, because it works and it’s simple: God, Eucharist, and community. 

Trust in God the father who never disappoints. Gaze at the Eucharist and see Jesus who never abandons. And embrace community where love is incarnate: pray for one another. We are just beginning our slow and painful process of healing. 

Jesus tells us “I came to set the world on fire and how I wish it were already burning!”2 There’s a flame of hope in the Bronx, let’s pray for it to spread. 3


Photos/Courtesy of the author.

  1. John 14:8
  2. Luke 12:49
  3. “Go forth and set the world on fire” – St. Ignatius of Loyola

Connor Smith, SJ   /   All posts by Connor