St. Athanasius, Bronx, NY (Image credit: Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons)

Mili Bonilla stepped off the stoop of the St. Athanasius rectory in the South Bronx, a bit dazed. Young and full of fire, she’d gone to tell the priest she would soon be leaving to work with a political organization in Venezuela. “No, no, Mili, your work is here,” Fr. Neil Connelly, vicar for the South Bronx told her. “We need you.” It was 1978. The neighborhoods around St. Athanasius were burning and being bulldozed, the result of a tangle of government policies–redlining, highway construction, deindustrialization, budget cuts–that left huge swaths of American cities devastated in the 1970s. Nowhere was it worse than in the Bronx, a place that had become a byword for destruction and abandonment. 

Indeed, during Milli’s teenage years more than forty percent of buildings in the South Bronx burned, victims of arson, often by landlords, accelerated by a city government that had shuttered firehouses in fire-prone neighborhoods. Families slept with their shoes by the door, in case they had to escape fast. The city’s own housing commissioner, Roger Starr, argued a few years earlier that the place should be abandoned: he advocated shuttering subway stations, closing schools and police precincts, pulling back services in hopes the people went away. Blocks upon blocks, four square miles wide, looked like something out of a biblical prophecy: not a stone standing upon a stone. But in 1978 people were still in these neighborhoods, thousands of them, working people. Most had nowhere else to go. 

Forty-five years later, in the fall of 2023, Mili is standing in front of the St. Athanasius rectory again. “This block, in front of the church, it was a field of rubble. Just all broken bricks and concrete. As I came out of the rectory I stumbled. Neil told me we were going to fight for the neighborhood. I just looked out at all the rubble and I thought, ok. I guess this is what it is.”

What are the places we call holy? Grand architecture of worship with sun streaming through colored glass? Mountain ranges that whisper some eternal majesty? Battlefields where spirits linger? Do celestial choirs sing along some sacred caminos? Here is holy ground, beside the roaring of the Bruckner Expressway and the droning of the trucks belching their way into the Hunts Point Market. Something profound happened in these streets of the South Bronx. The people together defied a death sentence. They powered their own resurrection. Not everyone survived. The destruction of the Bronx was often measured in square blocks, but a harsher toll could be tallied in lives lost. After the fires came HIV, crack, guns, incarceration. Still, neighborhoods built back. All this fall I’ve taken walks amid what once was wreckage with people who battled for a place the powerful had said was not worthy of saving. They’d kept faith. We went to find the places where something sacred might break through amid the noise of ordinary life. At very least they are places worth standing near, beholding. 

On Fox Street, around the corner from St. Athanasius, all through the fire years a circle of children gathered weekly, sitting together in the street, to sort their fears and hopes. They convened under the tutelage of Edward Eismann, a psychologist and former seminarian who devised the peer to peer counseling of Unitas Therapeutic Family as a balm for frightened children growing hard from fear. Together they learned to measure their strength in compassion. 

Edward Eismann speaking in the Bronx. (Image credit: UNITAS)

We walk across Southern Boulevard to 585 Bruckner Boulevard where beneath the drone of the elevated highway stands a rowhouse. Carvings in the concrete beside its door show slender saints, their faces long, their beards gray with car exhaust: Peter and Paul, standing guard or offering inspiration. In the battle years, it was a house of activists, Mili and a roommate and a never-ending stream of comrades from Nicaragua and El Salvador, Chile, and Guatemala. A thread of subversive faith, belief in the implication of the Incarnation ran up the continent from Santiago to the South Bronx. The walls were covered in silk screen exhortations to justice. The mattresses were thin, but the ambitions were wide. “There used to be a statue of Mary in the alcove above the door, where the air conditioner is now,” Mili drolled. “We didn’t know her last name.” One more woman in the neighborhood in a tight spot.

Walking under the Bruckner at Hunts Point Avenue means crossing twelve lanes of traffic. In the early 1980s it was treacherous, the light set for just a few seconds as if to telegraph that this was a place trucks rushed through, not a place people made their lives. After a little girl and then a teacher were mowed down, the group Neil Connelly recruited Mili for, South Bronx People Change, gathered a few hundred people together. The city had refused their entreaties to lengthen the duration of the walk signal. Half the crowd stepped off the sidewalk as the light changed and kept walking east. The other half stepped from twelve lanes away and kept walking west. They crisscrossed, over and over, hundreds, the crowd never making it across in the paltry twenty seconds. Traffic was stalled all the way down the Bruckner and across the bridges into Manhattan. The city extended the walk signal.  

There were many ways to fight for life. Across the Bruckner on the Hunts Point peninsula they built a chapel–so people wouldn’t have to walk so far to church. At the foot of tumbled down Seneca Avenue, women read the gospel and the whole congregation gave the homily, pulling inspiration from the early church. A priest served Seneca Chapel, too, but the community of lay people led, finding their stories in these ancient ones. In those years the streets were dark, most of the street lights broken. To keep each other safe from muggers, the whole clutch of faithful walked en masse from house to house to deliver each other home. The church was these people. 

Kathy Osberger arrived in the South Bronx in 1977 after a stint in Chile and Peru. Now decades later she stands gazing at the long brick wall of the Hunts Point Avenue rowhouses. These were nearly vacant, she said. Each week was a scramble to keep buildings occupied enough that an argument could be made to rehabilitate them. People lived without heat, with plumbing busted and wind whipping through sagging roofs. But if the city demolished all the buildings, how could the neighborhood ever recover, Kathy and friends argued. “We felt that if the Hunts Point Avenue rowhouses went, it would just be the end. They were too symbolic. That next the schools would close and then the neighborhood would really be dead.” So they planned and rallied and fought. They visited the Manhattan offices of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), implored Terrance Cardinal Cooke to weigh in, posted signs pleading vandals to lay off. Four decades later the rowhouses are preserved at low rents and undergoing another renovation.

Camilo J. Vergara, 908 Hunts Point Avenue, Bronx, NY, 1980 (Image credit: Library of Congress)

When vacant buildings were more common than playgrounds, people on Kelly Street held barbeques, strung a volleyball net from curb to curb, and set their stereos in windows so neighbors could dance. Kids swung double-dutch on the sidewalk. Mr. Potts, up from Mississippi who turned paychecks at the produce market into a building he owned, kept the block alive. His teenage kids played basketball late nights with a youth worker from Casita Maria, the settlement house set up by the archdiocese in the 1930s. Young men, ignorant of how impossible were their dreams, they set out to reclaim the neighborhood. Bit by bit, they rehabilitated apartments, learned budgets, wrote grants, repopulated and reanimated the block. In 1981, artists Rigoberto Torres and John Ahearn noticed the living on Kelly Street and cast the figures of jump roping girls in plaster. Roman monuments were adorned with friezes of the wealthy and the mythic heroes. These artists immortalized the plebian, the people who kept the neighborhood alive. For forty years, the Kelly Street jump-ropers have watched over the block. 

Emma Fuentes’s children sat in the circle on Fox Street. She prayed in the chapel on Seneca Avenue. She lived–at the time–precariously. One priest at St. Athanasius focused on building community, the organization, the protests, and the chapel. The other focused on building buildings (his name you read emblazoned on the buildings by the Bruckner). Block by block, the rubble rose again, into housing. Beside the church a block, two blocks, three blocks that had been burned then demolished were turned into tidy one-story homes with driveways and gardens. With low interest mortgages, these were sold to the people who remained–or those who wanted to come back. Emma and her husband sweep the sidewalk in front of theirs each day. Buffeted by most of the terrible things that could happen in the hard days, they exhaled into safety here. Emma got a master’s degree, became a social worker aiding families facing the same troubles she once did. 

We’ve walked a crooked circle back to St. Athanasius. The rubble Mili stumbled on became a plaza where people gather after Mass. There are statues to the builder priests. They did good things. But the plaza could be crowded with statues. All the Ahearn and Rigoberto sculptures, all the people who went to meetings and sat in at offices and learned to read budgets and argued over federal funds, who prayed and who worked and who hoped. It was communion. Always improbable. Stone upon stone. The temple rebuilt.

Eileen Markey is an assistant professor of Journalism at Lehman College of the City University of New York and a writer in residence at the Center on Religion and Culture. She is working on a history of the Bronx people's movement during the 1970s and 1980s.