St. Athanasius parishioners condemn sweeping changes
Father Gigante Plaza, long a symbol of neighborhood unity and generosity, was instead the site of anger and division on August 22, as parishioners from St. Athanasius Church gathered to level accusations against their new pastor, charging that he was power-hungry and corrupt.
About 100 parishioners and supporters from the 103-year-old Catholic church on Tiffany Street came together for an organized speak-out against Pastor Jose Rivas, complaining that the Colombian-born prelate who took over on July 1 has poisoned relations with his flock by firing or letting go several well-liked clergy members and respected volunteers, without notice or explanation.
Additionally, they say Rivas has been smearing the names of those he has removed, by making accusations against them from the pulpit.
In addition, they say Rivas has asked parishioners for donations to spruce up the rectory he lives in in Father Gigante Plaza, yet he has made the rectory off-limits to residents and parishioners who want to use it as a place to hold parish meetings.
The angry group added that the pastor had asked donors to donate cash to help repair the roof but would not give them receipts.
Most troubling of all, the parishioners say, is what they call the pastor’s betrayal of the church’s commitment to Hunts Point and Longwood’s neediest residents.
“The corporeal works of mercy are just as important as the spiritual acts of mercy,” said Sister Thomas, a nun who has done outreach for the church since coming to Longwood in 1960. On his second day on the job, the pastor told her she was no longer needed, and eliminted the flea market she had run for many years to help low-income residents.
Sister Thomas said the priest put furniture and other household goods that were to be sold cheap to residents in storage in an adjacent garage, while throwing out piles of clothes she had intended to sell or give away.
“That’s why there’s an outrage,” she said.
Sister Thomas and others contend the flea market sales amounted to thousands of dollars annually that benefited the community, while providing low-cost necessities local people need.
“Even though it’s a religious institution, we have to think of the needy,” Sister Thomas said. “When you come across someone who’s antagonistic toward that, there’s something wrong.”
A woman who answered the phone at St. Athanasius said Rivas would have no comment. “The pastor will not respond. He has chosen to remain silent,” she said.
Longwood residents and business owners came to support Sister Thomas, and to express their outrage at the changes at the church.
“It’s terrible,” said Louie Morales, 60, a long-time acquaintance of Sister Thomas, while looking at one of dozens of photos of parishioners and clergy from the 1940s through more recent times that protesters had spread out out across the length of a fence at the plaza.
“When all of the people ran away from the South Bronx, some of us stood behind and said ‘we’re not giving up on the neighborhood,’” said Morales, who owns a used furniture store on Southern Boulevard a half-block from the plaza, and whose first job was working with kids at Casita Maria in a summer program in the 1960s.
“They want to take away what we built,” said Angela Centeno, who says she has been volunteering in numerous capacities at the church since she moved to Longwood in 1960. Last month the pastor told her there was no longer a need for her in the church, she said.
But some parishioners from Rivas’s former flock at St. John’s Chrysostom on Hoe Avenue were dumbfounded by the conflict that has arisen at St. Athanasius since his transfer in July.
“He was great—there were no problems,” insisted Carmen Silva, a parishioner at St. John’s for all 11 years of Rivas’ work there as pastor, while sitting at the base of the fence at the plaza with a friend from the Hoe Avenue church.
“He used to bring children gifts and talk to them,” she said, adding that, “He’s very strict, but he doesn’t talk behind your back.”
“This doesn’t make sense,” she said, shaking her head, and added, “this is embarrassing.”
“We were sad that he left,” added her friend, Norma Garcia.
But the sentiment of the crowd at the plaza was overwhelmingly critical of the new regime.
“Change is good, but not when it divides the community,” said Marta Rivera of Casita Maria, adding that “we want Sister Thomas to be respected.”
“I’m not going to call him Father,” said Antonio Centeno, who helped organize the event. “He’s Mr. Rivas.”
“We hope that he’s replaced,” said Centeno, adding that a “slap on the wrist against this man” would be unlikely to help their cause.