When Pope Francis arrives in East Harlem during his visit to New York City, he will see how his mission to battle poverty and despair is put into action every day.
The ministry of the Community of Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal is a flicker of hope in the Manhattan enclave dominated by aging public housing developments, poverty, gang violence and broken homes.
The eight sisters, in their long, traditional habits, have been filling a religious void here since the Archdiocese of New York closed the neighborhood's beloved Our Lady Queen of Angels Roman Catholic Church in 2007 -- part of a reorganization with similar shutterings in many parishes within the archdiocese's jurisdiction.
"They are great humanitarians," said Vianel Garcia, 34, who manages a hair salon on East 113th Street, across from the sisters' small convent and Our Lady Queen of Angels School. Her mother gets help from a food pantry the sisters run, and one of Garcia's daughters went on a day trip they organized last year for neighborhood children to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.
"It is a comfort for us to know they are always there," she said.
For many residents who hailed from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, the 19th-century church was a respite of peace from the poverty and crime surrounding them. When it was closed, parishioners held protest vigils outside, and some were arrested when they locked themselves inside in a desperate bid to keep it open. For several years, a steadfast group held a prayer vigil each week.
The parish's elementary school was spared. Today it remains a community focal point for prekindergarten through eighth-grade students during the school year.
The Community of Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal -- who with the pope look to the same patron saint, Francis of Assisi -- say his sojourn to East Harlem spurs hope that the neighborhood's lost sheep will be ushered back into the fold of the Catholic Church.
"The pope's visit is a tremendous blessing for everyone in this neighborhood," said Sister Clare Matthiass. "We are thrilled. The families here are surrounded by negativity, and they need to know that God cares for them."
A beacon of the neighborhood
The sisters' ministry is far-reaching: Their food pantry feeds several hundred poor and homeless people each month. They also collect clothing, run a summer program for children, and operate a youth ministry that offers an alternative to gangs, drugs and teenage pregnancy.
The neighborhood is populous and its need is great. East Harlem has the highest concentration of public housing developments in the city, which also makes it No. 1 in the nation. That density of housing is squashed into a 2.4-mile radius where about 120,500 people live, according to the 2010 U.S. census.
About 45 percent of East Harlem's residents receive public assistance, Department of City Planning data show.
East Harlem, which covers the New York Police Department's 23rd and 24th precincts, has historically been "one of highest-crime areas in shootings and murders" in the city, said retired NYPD Sgt. Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
"There are certain facts that we avoid and don't like to talk about. And that is anywhere there is poverty, no parenting, a breakup of the family, poor schools -- there will be crime," said Giacalone, who wrote the textbook "The Criminal Investigative Function."
Forty-five percent of the neighborhood's population is Hispanic and since the 1950s has been predominantly of Puerto Rican heritage. In the 2010 census, 23.9 percent of residents identify themselves as Puerto Rican and 7.9 percent as Mexican, while 12.6 percent identify with other Hispanic origins. The neighborhood is seeing a growing Asian population, about 8 percent in the census.
The Franciscan sisters' convent is on a cul-de-sac, surrounded by the Jefferson Houses -- 18 brick-faced buildings, completed in 1959, where more than 3,700 people live. Those buildings blend into another corridor of 10 buildings from East 112th to East 115th streets -- the Johnson Houses, completed in 1948 and home to another 3,000 people.
"We are nestled here among the projects," Matthiass said.
The sisters arrived in the neighborhood seven years ago, at a 129-year-old convent that had been closed for decades. They stripped layers of carpet and tiles from the chapel's floors to get down to the original wood. Volunteers from the neighborhood pitched in and suburban parishioners donated their painting and construction expertise to make the convent livable.
Last summer and this summer, the sisters have opened the doors to nearly 70 neighborhood kids who play, sing, learn carpentry and plant flower gardens in the Harlem Summer Life program, organized with the help of dozens of volunteers.
During the two-week program in July, they prepared and served chicken fingers, pizza and quesadilla lunches for the kids, with cookies and ices for snacks.
Hope for the children
Sister Ann Kateri Hamm, the order's local servant, said young children "reared with love" will not join gangs to "find a sense of belonging."
"One by one, we treat each child as an individual and care for that child, because goodness perpetuates itself," she said.
"We are here to lavish them in love," chimed in Matthiass. "We want them to know that they have our full attention. We give the children and their families hope that there is a potential for greatness and who they truly are will be revealed."
Inside a cool and freshly painted basement, the children sang and recited refrains about Jesus' love. A white tablecloth and a leafy fern complemented a wall-size photograph of a smiling Pope Francis.
"God is good," Sister Cecilia Jesse said to the children sitting cross-legged on rug mats.
"All the time!" the children shouted in response. The sister played the guitar and the children sang, "God made me and he loves me."
In art, the children made rosaries from beads. Others fashioned a collage of pictures of their favorite saints. Gym offered the release of physical activity, with contests on a handmade pingpong table and a restored arcade basketball hoop.
Inside the convent office, which had been turned into a classroom, an American flag was taped to a windowsill. A statue of the Virgin Mary was situated on a table covered with a white cloth. Nearby, a dozen girls sat on the floor and watched a video about Mother Teresa and how various orders of nuns and sisters help the poor and elderly.
After the video presentation, Matthiass said to the girls: "There are various calls to life: a call to marriage, to be a sister, to be single . . . God calls some people to be single -- all to make the best possible you."
In moments of neighborhood crisis from gun violence, the sisters have come to residents' aid. In July, when a man was shot and killed, his mother-in-law "came to us . . . and she asked us for our prayers," Hamm said.
Focus to 'restore the family'
Several of the sisters visited the family and are helping to see them through their loss.
"We know the mothers, grandmothers, the wives and the children, and we see the effects," said Hamm, adding that their focus is to "restore the family, which will bring peace to our neighborhood." Hamm said the sisters offer "a gentle encouragement" to return to the Catholic Church.
Recently, they ministered to a 70-year-old couple. The man and woman have been together for 40 years, and after a yearlong relationship with the sisters the couple decided to take their marriage vows.
"The woman is declining in health and is in a nursing home, but for today she now has a new peacefulness," Hamm said.
Outside the convent one afternoon, Aracelia Galvez Vazquez, 65, smiled with joy when she greeted the sisters. "Hay las hermanitas!" ("Oh, the little sisters!") said Vazquez, whose grandchildren attended the summer program.
"I'm grateful to God for the sisters," she said. "My grandchildren are so happy when they come here. I know nothing will happen to them here. They learn their religion and learn to behave well."
Her granddaughter, Araceli, 12, when asked about her time in the program, said: "I am grateful for everything that is given to us."