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Cover story

Urban contemplatives open to the world

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Brooklyn, N.Y.

The five-story, red brick rectory behind Transfiguration Church is home to only one priest, yet it is filled to capacity. In every room, including the living and dining rooms, beds, sofas and cots are set up so that 30 of the tired and poor, the homeless and tempest-tossed of El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico can live as a family.

In the convent next door, five women from these countries live with two Congregation of St. Joseph sisters, and in the basement eight more immigrants live with a Xaverian brother. In a church-run shelter across the street, 23 sleep each night. And down the street, 21 people in the final stages of AIDS are cared for in the former convent, now called Casa Betsaida.

“It’s part of my spirituality,” pastor Msgr. Bryan Karvelis said. “We wish to share and be one with the poor. What better way to be one with them than to offer our home?” Showing an example of hospitality to strangers is “one of the most powerful homilies I could offer to this parish about being Christian.”

Karvelis came to Transfiguration first as a seminarian for two summers, in 1954 and ’55. In 1956, newly ordained, he arrived as a priest for his first assignment and never left (it was the period prior to the current rule that pastors are moved every six years). In this multi-cultured pocket in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Karvelis found a perfect place to practice his devotion to contemplative living within an urban environment. He has instilled this spirituality in his parishioners, 98 percent of whom are Latino immigrants or children of immigrants. They volunteer in the parish’s various outreach programs and explore their contemplative sides in one of 18 mini-churches, which meet weekly in a member’s home to discuss the gospel as it relates to their lives.

“You can’t be around him and not be affected by his vision of loving and sharing,” said Luz Mulhern, a parishioner for more than four decades. “Being around him is a lesson in humanity.”

Karvelis, 70, has just returned to his parish after an absence of several months for a kidney transplant and subsequent complications, including blood clots from his legs moving to his lungs, flu and bronchitis. Each time he was released from the hospital, he headed for Tabor, Transfiguration’s retreat house near Tarrytown, N.Y., to recover. He is still somewhat weak and has trouble walking and standing for long, but is grateful to be back with his parishioners and the 30 men, mostly between ages 18 and 30, he considers family.

Like every family, ups and downs

“I call them my sons, and they relate to that fairly well. Like every family, we have our ups and downs and little fights now and then,” he said, but nothing like in the 1980s when many of the men, escapees from the wars in Central America, were “psychologically very scarred.” Tension in the residence was high, at times, and tempers would flare. “Except for the slaughter of the ’80s, in that awful period of warfare, our home is very quiet.”

Karvelis began opening his door to foreigners in the 1970s. “It seemed outrageous we had this huge rectory building, and so many homeless immigrants needed help.”

The numbers increased because Karvelis allows them to stay “as long as it’s useful.” If they’re working, they contribute $30 a month for food, water and electric bills. Because many of them are young and far from home, the pastor is often awakened at night for “Daddy/son talk” about family back home and romantic relationships here.

Every Saturday Karvelis and his sons share the noon meal together in a bright room at the back of the 126-year-old rectory; he cooks, and they clean up. On a cold Saturday in February, Karvelis is at the stove making corned beef hash (his grandfather emigrated from County Roscommon, Ireland), to which he adds peppers, onions, olives, catsup and garlic, “all kinds of stuff to zip it up.”

Wearing a navy plaid shirt, navy sweat jacket and black corduroys, he looks more like an aging laborer than a cleric. Stirring his hash and adding spices, he takes frequent breaks to prop up his right leg, which swells from the surgery.

Jose Delrio opens five large cans of pineapple juice, which he spaces out on the three long tables set for dinner. He arrived four years ago, having run across the border from Mexico and hitchhiked to New York. It was word-of-mouth back home that led him to the Marcy Avenue rectory. “At my country, the people know about Fr. Bryan.”

Delrio said he was involved in political activities in Mexico and feared for his life. He works for a moving company now and sends money home for his three children, ages 14, 19 and 21.

Gregorio Delcid arrived 13 years ago from El Salvador. He has been sick much of the time, suffering from allergies. “I don’t have the words how to tell you how big is the help I have receive from him. He know how to take care of everyone to feel good.”

As Delcid speaks, a bell sounds, and more men appear in the downstairs kitchen. After a few minutes, Karvelis calls up the stairs in Spanish to hurry his sons along. Soon, 20 men stand at the tables with bowed heads while Karvelis blesses the meal in Spanish. For the next hour, they share a meal like any other large family, talking of jobs or lack thereof and things that need fixing in the house.

While Karvelis was gone, his “sons” lived in the rectory unsupervised. When he returned, briefly, for Christmas, they barred him from the kitchen while they prepared turkey dinner for 70. Residents of the shelter joined them, as well as former “sons” who have built lives on their own but still visit their American father. (Former residents come back often, sometimes with a son named Bryan.)

Karvelis’ sons were not the only ones to serve him in his need. The pastor saw his spirituality return to him this past October in the gift of a kidney donated by parishioner Pascual Chico.

“To me, it’s an honor God chose me to give Fr. Bryan one of my kidneys,” said Chico, 59. “I would not only give him my one kidney, I would give him both of my kidneys so he could live. He is one of the greatest Christians that ever lived, and that includes Mother Teresa and everybody in history. For 43 years a miracle has been happening in our community, and God wants it to keep going.”

Chico, who arrived from Puerto Rico 25 years ago, said he has read hundreds of books on Christianity but has learned most from Karvelis. “He makes Jesus very clear to all of us.”

Parishioner Mulhern met Karvelis when she was 10, after he started a Spanish Mass at Transfiguration Church. She and her family came to Brooklyn from Puerto Rico in 1955 as part of the first wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Shortly after he arrived in the community the following year, Karvelis began reaching out to these newcomers by offering a Mass in Spanish.

“Then we didn’t have to walk so far to go to Mass,” Mulhern said. “He helps to ease the pain of being an immigrant.”

Dominicans followed the Puerto Ricans, then people from Mexico and Central America. “He’s gone through all the immigrations and migrations,” Mulhern said. And he continues to welcome the stranger, his crowded rectory being just one example. “You name the country, there’s a fellow here who he’s taken in. He teaches you to be affected by the tragedies and pain of people. If you’re not touched, you’re not able to feel human pain.”

Inspired to stay in the neighborhood

Mulhern credits Karvelis with shaping her character when she was a teenager in the 1960s. With the Young Christian Movement he founded, based on the Jocist Movement in France, Karvelis had teens involved with voter registration and working for better conditions for factory workers, housing and education. “My sense of justice and fairness I really learned from him. There was always the sense to give to others and not just think about yourself, if you’re comfortable, and everybody else around you is struggling.”

This way of living became so much a part of her, Mulhern said, that when she married in 1970 she and her husband decided to stay in the parish. “We wanted to kind of bear witness to something other than going off to the suburbs.”

Because of the strength of this spirituality, the work Karvelis set in place continued in his absence. “We learned we all have to pull together because that’s what the church is,” said Sr. Peggy Walsh, director of the immigration program. She calls Transfiguration Parish an example of “how the church will be, can be and should be.”

Walsh attributes the parish’s ability to carry on to Karvelis’ leadership style, which allows workers great freedom of governance in their areas. This is probably the best approach because it is hard to imagine any more work could be done here; every inch of the parish’s property seems to be in use. Besides every room in the residential buildings, the church’s space also has been creatively commandeered. The floor beneath the church, which had been a catchall of clutter, was cleared out beginning in 1971 and now looks like a series of catacombs of prayer and work. With only tiny spaces to work with, two chapels take on the role of one. The Chapel of the Word allows about 70 worshipers to sit on closely placed, cloth-covered, backless benches for scripture readings, before moving to the Chapel of the Eucharist, where all stand around the altar.

On the other side of a confessional in the Chapel of the Eucharist, prayer gives way to service. Desks and cabinets fill more warrens of space, with signs in Spanish directing the Central American immigrants who come here for residency assistance. Upstairs in the church, 1,500 people attend one of three weekend Masses, and in the school next door, 200 children attend grades one through eight. This doesn’t include Walsh’s immigration work in another building, legal help, public assistance advocacy, home care for seniors or the social service projects of the nearby South Side Mission. These projects are supported largely through government funding.

Fueled by mini-churches

So much work is being done in this parish that when asked about the number served each year, Walsh can’t begin to guess. “We don’t keep those kinds of statistics,” she said, adding that talking and listening to the immigrants is as important as the parish’s activism on their behalf. “They need to understand they’re loved, that they have great worth before God, and that the world belongs to God, not particular governments.”

Transfiguration’s activist efforts are fueled by the prayer and contemplation of the mini-churches or the Fraternities of Jesus of Nazareth. Karvelis was strongly influenced by the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld, a French priest of the late 19th century who lived a hermit’s life in Algeria. Karvelis began the mini-churches in 1966 as a way to help parishioners develop a deeper relationship with Jesus and to live his gospel message. Members take turns cooking for and serving meals in the shelter and volunteering at Casa Betsaida, even though they are not wealthy people themselves. Most parishioners work in factories or restaurants or drive taxis, although some have scraped together the money to buy small grocery stores or bakeries. Besides meeting weekly to discuss the gospel for the following Sunday, each fraternity, consisting of 15 to 20 members, makes two retreats together annually at Tabor, which was purchased in 1969 with proceeds from the sale of several church-owned houses in the parish.

Karvelis spends Thursday and Friday, his days off, at Tabor; the first day is for chores, the second is spent in prayer and silence in the chapel or the woods surrounding the house. While he is gone, his garage is turned into a boutique of used clothing, free for shelter guests, newly arrived immigrants or anyone who needs it. In a pinch, the boutique opens on other days, with clothes spread out on Karvelis’ 1994 blue Chevy Cavalier.

The day of silence each week is “a tremendous gift,” Karvelis said, a time that helps develop his homilies and his relationship with God. “There’s a certain beauty to it and a certain being stripped right down to nothing. It’s trying to face God in a hands-open kind of way that allows the Lord to speak to you in silence.”

The priest Karvelis is today is the result of three “profound” influences in his life. “God had been so generous with me,” he said.

The seeds of his vocation were planted early, growing up on Long Island and in Queens, N.Y., in a family that attended Mass daily. From that exposure, he knew he wanted to be a priest by the time he was 11. He entered Immaculate Conception Seminary on Long Island at 14. From there he attended Cathedral College in Brooklyn. The monastic tradition of the seminary, with its emphasis on silence, left a permanent impression. “I will be eternally grateful for that,” he said.

The third influence also came during his seminary years. Karvelis had been organizing some of his classmates to spend the summer discussing Aristotle’s Ethics. He mentioned this to his spiritual director who laughed and told him he wouldn’t be spending his summer studying philosophy; rather he would spend it meeting people, the first of whom would be Dorothy Day. Karvelis made his way to the Catholic Worker soup kitchen in lower Manhattan where Day assigned him to serve pea soup and changed his life forever.

“I saw the cockroaches on the walls and the people from the Bowery coming in and I thought, ‘This is gospel poverty. This is what I don’t see elsewhere. This is what I want.’ ”

Karvelis has been able to fulfill that desire, living as he does with poor immigrants, but gospel living is challenged in a particular way in Transfiguration’s neighborhood, one he wouldn’t have anticipated in Day’s soup kitchen. The church’s parishioners don’t live in the immediate area. They come from the neighborhoods on the other side of the elevated subway tracks that cut through Williamsburg. The streets surrounding the church conjure up images of Poland before World War II. In this, the heart of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, women with covered heads tend their children while men in long black coats, or kapotas, fur-rimmed domed hats, shtreimels, long beards and payos, curling forelocks, go briskly about their business. They exchange not a word or glance with the clergy, parishioners or immigrants of Transfiguration. The two deeply religious communities share the same blocks, but that is all.

“We’ve had struggle over struggle,” Walsh said. She relates a story of two Hasidic men who began beating a Latino boy with their umbrellas because they suspected him of a crime. Karvelis ran out to stop them. Failing to do so, he threw himself on top of the boy, but the men continued the flogging until the police arrived.

Karvelis calls these beatings “lynchings,” and said in the 1980s and early 1990s six to eight a week occurred. Blacks and Hispanics were “beaten to pulps” by large groups of Hasidic men, and some of the victims died, he said.

“Those were some of the most horrible experiences of my life. It was absolute savagery, and they obviously enjoyed it.”

Beatings are rare now, following media coverage of the tensions, he said, but differences still exist, among them perceived political favoritism of the Hasidim, who vote in blocks, displacement of Latinos from limited housing in favor of Orthodox Jews who must live separately, and occasional vigilante justice.

This intolerance for outsiders hasn’t always been directed just at the immigrant community. When Walsh arrived in full habit in 1959, many Holocaust survivors lived there who taught their children to spit on the crucifix she wore around her neck.

Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, did not respond to repeated telephone calls requesting comment on Hasidic/immigrant relations. John Talmage, chief of staff for City Councilman Kenneth K. Fisher, who represents the district, has not worked directly with Karvelis, but said community leaders in Williamsburg have been doing a better job of dealing with problems there before they get out of hand. “Things aren’t perfect, but we don’t get a call from the cops every two or three months saying things are out of control.”

Councilman Victor Robles, who represents the area where the parishioners live but not the area around the church, does work with Karvelis and credits him with trying to ease the tensions.

“He’s the gum keeping it together,” said Robles, who has known the monsignor since 1971 when Robles worked for then-Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who represented Williamsburg. “He reinforces our faith in terms of what we are taught and what the clergy symbolizes. He symbolizes what the priesthood is, not just the Mass and the clothing, but he shows he’s God’s servant. He reaches out to everyone.”

For Karvelis, reaching out to everyone is what the church is supposed to do, but he sees it failing as far as immigrants are concerned.

“The sad part is the church does very little in this line of hospitality. Other churches send them to us and they haven’t even given them something to eat. Doesn’t it occur to them this is their responsibility?”

To ignore immigrants is to forget the past, he said. “In America, the Roman Catholic church has been built by immigrants. If we miss the boat, we will suffer severely. Since World War II, the established church has been forgetting a bit its immigrant origins.”

Karvelis has not forgotten and never will. He owes his life to an immigrant.

“Now I say my flesh and blood is Hispanic. I have a Puerto Rican kidney. That is the result of the kingdom of God moving among us. It is pure gift.”

After giving for so many years, Karvelis now understands on a deep level what it is to be dependent.

“I, too, am small and little and I have much to receive from God and my brothers and sisters.”

In his homily on his first Sunday back, he shared that sentiment with his parishioners.

“I have always been so joyful that God gave us in this parish an experience of the kingdom of God,” he told them. “When we feel ourselves so loved, it gives us the strength to love others.”

Retta Blaney, an arts and religion writer, is editor of the anthology Journalism Stories from the Real World (North American Press).

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000