San Gennaro Mission, 2017
The Church of the Most Precious Blood, Little Italy, New York. Opening night. San Gennaro Festival. New York’s two week long party in Little Italy, highlighted by marching bands, processions, and a mile long stretch of street stalls selling everything from sausage and peppers, fried calamari, and cannolis to “Handbags from Heaven” and other leather goods to wine and beer out of plastic cups. Kind of our version of Mardi Gras. On the northern end of Mulberry, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral stands firm and tall, though largely quiet. A mile south, at the southern terminus near Canal, its second parish church, the Most Precious Blood, faces very quiet Baxter Street, but backs onto Mulberry There, it offers a welcoming courtyard and, at this time of year, the San Genaro shrine. It’s opening night, so the band is playing and the atmosphere is lively, to say the least.
Into the fray stepped our small band of missionaries, led by the unflappable Msgr. Sakano. Outnumbered at least 1,000 to one, we stationed two missionaries one block north on Mulberry and Hester, three more plus Msgr. Sakano in the courtyard near the statue, and two in the church itself. Our three priests were in the confessionals. With Lord in the monstrance on the altar, that made us an even “infinite”, so it wasn’t really a fair fight. It was more like raking in the autumn leaves.
All night long, the crowds came. Ken and Cathy up on Hester, and perhaps San Genaro himself, were pushing them towards us in the courtyard. There, most visitors were disarmed by our simple ask, “Would you like to come into the church to light a candle and pray?” After all, the whole origin of this street party they were engaged in was the Church, and a saint who had died for his faith. A short prayer for a lost father, a struggling child, a separated friend, almost seemed natural. Once inside the quiet of Precious Blood, Angeli, Evelyn, and mostly, the Lord, did their part. Before long, dozens were receiving His mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. By evening’s end, we had blown through all previous records for lit candles on the altar (160, not counting the 20+ at the base of the statue of Saint Anthony in the garden), and our priests had heard almost 50 confessions. The good fathers could only smile knowingly about these when asked, “How did they go?”
As penitents streamed back out of the church, many tears of joy were wept, hugs given, thank you’s dispensed. I overheard two separate penitents refer to our missionaries as “Angels sent by God”, which in some ways, they were, at least in that moment. At the end of the evening, one of the parish workers charged with guarding San Genaro and helping passers bye pin their bills to his clothes (an old custom brought to Little Italy by the immigrants from Naples many years ago), said something that moved us in a very humble way. “Thank you,” he said, “For bringing Christ’s presence back into this festival. We knew he was here along, for sure, but you reminded us of Him in a very real way. You brought us out of the courtyard and into His church.”