Sister Tesa Fitzgerald is a saintly woman who does enormous good work with female ex-convicts and their children through the Hour Children charity. She and St. Barnabas pastor Monsignor Edward Barry saw the opportunity to site an Hour Children facility in a disused convent in Woodlawn, home to the largest Irish community in New York.
The decision, taken without proper consultation with the residents, caused uproar, and a huge public meeting was held at St. Barnabas on Monday, October 12, after which Sister Tesa withdrew her request. The meeting and the Woodlawn community’s anger over Hour Children possibly taking over the convent was first reported in last week’s Irish Voice.
Sister Tesa wrote a scathing letter to Barry blaming the Irish in Woodlawn for not being more accepting. She accused them of being prejudiced, ignorant and close-minded people.
“I stand ashamed of the Irish community’s behavior,” she wrote.
“I wept over Woodlawn. Anticipating the community meeting to be one of dialogue and clarification, I prayed for openness and trust for all involved. We at Hour Children were hoping to become part of your community but knew that our mission was unknown, unfamiliar and our families too often the victims of stigmatization and unfair stereotypes.
“Yet we hoped in the spirit of Pope Francis and in light of the Gospel mandate to reach out to the marginalized and needy, that we would be met with open mindedness and a sense of respect for our 30 years of service. Sadly we were wrong.
“Monsignor Barry spoke with courage and veracity. Facts had been distorted, Hour Children's mission slandered and the ‘fear factor’ reigned. Indeed it was a tragically sad night in the history of St. Barnabas Parish, the Woodlawn community and the universal church. How quickly we forget our history of racism and injustice: ‘Irish need not apply.’ We were all there and now I stand ashamed.”
The letter was an unfair characterization of a community I have always found extremely giving and generous. Indeed, on Sunday they held a massive fundraiser at nearby Gaelic Park for a very sick young child, Leah Carmody, daughter of two well known locals Eileen and Mike Carmody.
Hardly a month goes by that there are not similar appeals for help from stricken members and the community never fails to respond. The local immigration centers – funded in part by the community – do sterling work dealing with many issues.
It is a community under pressure. Some have visa problems, crime rates are climbing in the neighborhood, and some believe that Woodlawn will not last as an Irish community much further into the future with the lack of immigration from Ireland. Think Woodside in that respect, once an Irish redoubt, now utterly changed.
Into that tense melting pot comes the proposal for the Hour Children shelter. It seems clear that no proper consultation took place before the monthly meeting of the Woodlawn Taxpayers last Monday.
An idea that was sure to be as controversial as this should have been discussed in far greater detail and explanations offered as to what it would involve and what shape and form it would take. Instead the Hour Children purchase of the convent appeared to be offered as almost a done deal, denying local residents their clear right to have the matter explained to them and their voices heard.
Calling the community racist for wanting to know the details of the ex-con shelter is hardly fair. In some way it reminds me of the busing controversy in Boston where many of those legislating to get families in working class areas to send their kids to poorer neighborhoods for school were educating their own children in private schools far from the hue and cry.
The mutiny by Woodlawn residents should be seen for what it was: not racism but genuine anger that the church had failed to consult with them, even in a basic way, before opening the facility.
Could they have been convinced to accept it? That is entirely possible as there are many great hearts in the community, but forcing it through was never going to work. All in all, hardly an example of how such changes should be brought about.