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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Temporarily "Homeless" in Death?

David Gonzalez, a writer for the New York Times reports today about a woman by the name of Carmen Villegas who’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.  However, when the Archdiocese closed it in 2007, she led a group of the faithful in weekly services on the sidewalk, hoping their prayerful protest would help persuade the Archdiocese to reopen the sanctuary.  She succumbed to breast cancer last week, at the age of 58. Although friends, family and politicians asked the Archdiocese in writing — “to open wide the doors for one final adios,” but, 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 a local community board.

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.

Mr. Padro, the man who penned last week’s letter to Cardinal 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.

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.

In the end, 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.
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