Five years ago today, Pope Francis visited Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem, one of our Partnership Schools. Children from across the city crowded together on the sidewalk outside to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father as he made his way into the school to visit with a small group of students and others. Today, that kind of closeness—both such physical proximity and a sense of joy shared by a whole community—may feel like a relic of a bygone era.
Yet the qualities that drew “El Papa” to the school and the message he shared are as true and vibrant today as they were five years ago. So today, we remember the Pope’s visit to one of our schools—mostly for the powerful beauty he saw in the people and work of that place, but also for how his presence there can point us to a way of being with and for each other now.
Our Lady Queen of Angels has served East Harlem for over 120 years. From the school’s founding to the present day, it has served the striving immigrant communities of its neighborhood. Former principal Joanne Walsh, who met the Pope at the school doors that day, says that part of what she remembers best isn’t just the Pope himself, but “the joy and pride of the East Harlem community that El Papa chose to visit the community. The feeling of oneness, excitement and awe of everyone involved, from the students, teachers, staff, families, parishioners, former parishioners and students, neighbors, NYC police, mail carrier, Secret Service, donors, UPS driver—who expressed that they felt that they were receiving a special blessing.”
The parish has been shuttered, but Our Lady Queen of Angels School has persevered through times every bit as challenging as the current ones. Pope Francis visited there because of the school’s determination to keep serving students amid hardships, its welcome to a wide range of families, and the sense of community that OLQA fosters. While those present in the neighborhood that day may have felt blessed by the Pope’s presence, he came because of the blessing all involved in the school have long endeavored to be to each other.
Five years later, OLQA is still all of those things: persevering; proudly serving families, many of whom have journeyed from far away to make East Harlem home; and creating community, even when activities such as its vibrant family game nights are on hold due to the pandemic.
Pope Francis’ remarks at the school are worth reading in full, brief as they are. Simple and directed at students, his words adroitly remind us what Catholic schools are called to do, and how we who are involved in them can bless each other with what we do for students:
I am very happy to be with you today, along with this big family which surrounds you. I see your teachers, your parents and your family members. Thank you for letting me come, and I ask pardon from your teachers for “stealing” a few minutes of their class time!
They tell me that one of the nice things about this school is that some of its students come from other places, even from other countries. That is nice! Even though I know that it is not easy to have to move and find a new home, new neighbors and new friends. It is not easy. At the beginning it can be hard, right? Often you have to learn a new language, adjust to a new culture, even a new climate. There is so much to learn! And not just at school.
The good thing is that we also make new friends, we meet people who open doors for us, who are kind to us. They offer us friendship and understanding, and they try to help us not to feel like strangers. To feel at home. How nice it is to feel that the school is a second home. This is not only important for you, but also for your families. School then ends up being one big family. One where, together with our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, our teachers and friends, we learn to help one another, to share our good qualities, to give the best of ourselves, to work as a team and to pursue our dreams.
Very near here is a very important street named after a man who did a lot for other people. I want to talk a little bit about him. He was the Reverend Martin Luther King. One day he said, “I have a dream.” His dream was that many children, many people could have equal opportunities. His dream was that many children like you could get an education. It is beautiful to have dreams and to be able to fight for them.
Today we want to keep dreaming. We celebrate all the opportunities which enable you, and us adults, not to lose the hope of a better world with greater possibilities. I know that one of the dreams of your parents and teachers is that you can grow up and be happy. It is always good to see children smiling. Here I see you smiling. Keep smiling and help bring joy to everyone you meet.
Dear children, you have a right to dream and I am very happy that here in this school, in your friends and your teachers, you can find the support you need. Wherever there are dreams, there is joy, Jesus is always present. Because Jesus is joy, and he wants to help us to feel that joy every day of our lives.
Before going, I want to give you some homework. Can I? It is just a little request, but a very important one. Please don’t forget to pray for me, so that I can share with many people the joy of Jesus. And let us also pray so that many other people can share the joy like yours.
May God bless you today and Our Lady protect you.
Joanne Walsh reflects now that “the gift that I take away from that day was the understanding of the importance of making an intentional commitment to be ‘present’ to and for others. Pope Francis modeled that on September 25, 2015. We were a group of children and adults, spending time with our Pastor who made all feel important and loved. In this time of uncertainty and unrest, that is the best I can do for others.”