Protesters call for new pastor’s ouster

Photo by Joe Hirsch

A crowd of parishioners rallied to protest St. Athanasius' new pastor.

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.

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One Comment

  1. As a former resident of this community and parishioner of St. Athanasius Church I was truly appalled and embarrassed to have learned that these individuals would protest in front of the church to oust a priest who only comes to try and continue Monsignor Smith’s legacy in bringing the church to its beautiful state as it once was.
    These “so-called” parishioners who now want Fr. Rivas out are not doing so because Sr. Thomas was ousted. Sr. Thomas for many years conducted a flea market outside the church, and while her efforts were extraordinary and kind, 90% of the things that were being sold in that flea market were not in the best condition.
    As for it being donated, well I know I had witnessed for some time after Msgr. Smith’s passing Sr. Thomas was using the back of the church as you entered as a storage place. Even I at times stated how can this be happening? Msgr. Smith would never have allowed this.
    I commend Sr. Thomas for all her efforts and her tireless work in the community, but she should be the first to try and work with Fr. Rivas and extend herself in helping him reach his goals and tell parishioners that protesting to oust a priest is not the way to go.
    I have attended numerous masses Fr. Rivas has presided over at St. John Chrysostom church where he came from and to say that his sermons and talks to parishioners are inspirational and full of spiritual guidance is an understatement. He is only trying to implement what St. Athanasius was once was when former pastors Msgr. Smith and Fr. Raul Del Valle before him once did. Restore the faith in the community.
    The priest that replaced Msgr. Smith was in no condition physically to run this parish and for the time he was there everything was amok. You had eucharistic ministers who are only allowed to assist in giving out the communion practically presiding over the daily evening mass because he was not able to do so.
    Fr. Rivas is only doing what the Archdiocese has asked of him to do, to bring back St. Athanasius to the standards it once and should be. These people should be ashamed of themselves!

    Bringing back St. Athanasius to the standard that it once had would be absolutely meaningless if it means doing so by climbing on the back of a noble, caring and selfless person like Sister Thomas while simultaneously splitting a community that has long struggled to coalesce. I don’t know Father Rivas and judging from the parishioners that were interviewed for the HP Express article he too seems like a worthy, albeit “strict” leader. Perhaps that is the type of leader that St. St. John’s Chrysostom on Hoe Avenue needed. That may not be the type of leader SAS needs.

    The type of leader that St. A’s needs is the type of leader that, back in the 1970’s and 80’s when the buildings were blazing and crime and violence abounded, confronted both City Hall ruffians and Hunts Point thugs equally – with a fearless, level headed determination, unrelenting laser focused persistence and Christ-like compassion.
    Servants like Sr. Thomas, Sr. Rita, Sr. Mary, Sr. Jean, Father Jack, Father Connolly, of course Father G, and many, many others saved the South Bronx from itself. One of my first jobs (legal at least) was with Sr. Thomas/Father G. I learned early on that stature, position and titles are ethereal but serving is graceful and eternal! That lesson has benefitted me and those that I serve well throughout the years.

    While the 70’s and 80’s may seem to be a thing of the past, that type of leadership embodied by Sister Thomas coupled with Christ-like compassion is eternal. Fr. Rivas may want brush up on some plays from the old play book (the Bible) and revisit the story of Mary and her oil. While many fought for the best position around the table with our Lord, she chose to serve and anoint Him. Those around the table are long forgotten – Mary’s story endures.

    I wish Fr. Rivas well.

    James Albino

    These comments were originally posted on the Bronx News Network where a link to the Express story appeared–editor

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