By SAMANTHA GRILLO
On a Saturday evening, Maria Ferrera grabbed her coat from the closet in the hallway of her Bensonhurst, Brooklyn home, took her car keys from the table and shut the light in her dining room.
“I used to go to the mass at 9:15 on Sunday mornings,” Ferrera said as she was getting ready for church, “but I don’t understand that mass anymore; it’s in Spanish.”
She walked up the block to her car, passing houses that once belonged to families and friends she remembers seeing frequently, sitting outside on their concrete stoops, their children playing with her children. She doesn’t smell the familiar scents that lingered in the surrounding blocks of her home for decades. The stores lining the avenue two blocks away that she once shopped at now display words that she doesn’t recognize.
Like other institutions in Bensonhurst, the Church of Regina Pacis, which has a bell tower that towers over the neighborhood, has been re-shaped by immigration. The church is not only a place for Catholics to worship, but has also become a home to many immigrants in the neighborhood.
Today, a myriad of cultures can be found within the parish, which once catered mainly to Italian-Americans. The adjustment has sometimes been uncomfortable for long-time residents, but church officials say that have seen occasions when the full parish community comes together.
According to the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, Bensonhurst saw a 10 percent increase of the Asian population from 2000 to 2009, and a 13 percent decrease in the white population in the past decade. It also experienced a 4 percent increase in the Latino community.
To accommodate the needs of the incoming cultures in the neighborhood, Regina Pacis had to make adjustments to its mass schedules and services. In the past, the parish held masses in Latin, Italian and English. Today, there are masses that are said in Spanish and Chinese as well. The masses include readings from the Bible and songs in these languages. Celebrations are open in all four languages.
Right before World War II, construction on the church of Regina Pacis began, in honor of a vow that people in the neighborhood made to build a shrine to Our Lady Queen of Peace for the safe return of the soldiers from the area who were fighting in the war overseas. The church opened in 1951, complete with shrines for the soldiers who fought.
The grand architectural structure of the Basilica of Regina Pacis, which stands at 65th Street and 12th Avenue, is hard to miss. One gets a feeling of awe when walking through the large gold doors in the front of the church – a sense of being very small in the midst of the high dome-shaped ceilings. Beautiful paintings of figures from the Bible are painted high on the ceiling and highlighted with the light peering through the stained glass windows on both sides of the church.
When Bensonhurst started to see cultural changes, around 20 years ago, according to Dave Ali, previous assistant director of the parish’s migration office, the process of adapting to the cultural changes was a bit challenging at first.
But, Ali said, the Diocese of Brooklyn has always been known to “be minister to immigrants.” As he put it, the whole world is present in the diocese. Today, there are over 80 languages spoken within the diocese, which includes Brooklyn and Queens.
Monsignor Ronald Marino, pastor at Regina Pacis, was the immigration director for the Diocese of Brooklyn for 27 years. When he started at Regina Pacis 25 years ago, the majority of the parishioners were Italian-American. He saw a rise in the Spanish-speaking and Chinese community over the years.
“Most of the people in the area who are Hispanic are from Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico,” Marino said. “We began outreach to them. We had Spanish mass and other devotions for them to make them feel they’re welcome.”
For the Chinese community, it was very different. Many of the Chinese immigrants were not from a Catholic or Christian background, and some had no religion at all. For Catholic Chinese, there is a Chinese mass on Saturday nights. Marino said about 80 people attend that mass. For the other part of the community that does not practice the faith, outreach came in the form of after school programs for children, English classes, and dragon-dancing classes.
“It’s paying off because it’s becoming clear to the Chinese community that even though they don’t know the religion, we are still welcoming them and serving them,” Marino said.
Marino explained the many issues that immigrants face when coming to the United States. The biggest barrier is the lack of English. Many immigrants tend to stay in groups. Sociologically that is how all immigrants start, he said. They make a ghetto until they can manage things on their own.
Another issue is that many immigrants are undocumented, making it hard for them to find work. Those who are documented work multiple jobs, which impacts their family life greatly. Many immigrants leave their family behind, coming to the United States to make a living and send money back to their loved ones at home, and this is a hardship that many face.
“I remember very distinctly a [Chinese] woman said, ‘I walk by this church every day, I don’t know what it is, I would love to go in and see, but I’m afraid I don’t belong and I don’t know what to do.’ So I said, ‘alright’ and I took her in and showed her around,” Marino said.
After Marino explained what all the different statues inside represented, and what different symbols inside the church meant to Catholics, the woman opened up to him and explained her situation at home. She was abused by her husband, but was too afraid to go to the police because she perceived them as a military-like force, as in China. Marino realized that that woman’s feelings reflected those of many immigrants living in the area. A sense of not belonging and fear is common when trying to assimilate into a new culture.
“I noticed that she would go in the church every time she walked by, even when no one was there,” Marino said, “she didn’t become a Catholic, didn’t ask to, but apparently she finds great comfort going in there and it was a simple thing.”
Marino said that the church is not the first place that immigrants go to integrate into the neighborhood. They assimilate through food and drink first, looking for markets and restaurants with those who share their culture. The church had to make an effort to tell them they were welcome. The church put signs around the neighborhood in all the languages of the neighborhood saying that all are welcome.
“Immigrants hear with their eyes,” Marino said., “They can’t always hear and understand what you’re saying, so they hear with their eyes and what they see.”
The church is one establishment that was able to thrive with the influx of incoming immigrants, but for Kelly Lin, it hasn’t been as easy to maintain her nail salon, K. File It, on 18th Avenue, in the past few years.
“The business has been quiet for the past few years,” Lin said. “A lot of people move out, and different nail salons have been opening close to here. It’s not easy.”
Lin, who is expecting her first child in August, opened the salon five years ago when she moved to the United States from China with her husband. There was another salon in its place before she bought the space. When she took over, her clients consisted of mainly regular customers who came to the previous salon. But in the past few years, she’s seen many of those regulars move out, taking their business with them.
Anthony Turrigiano, owner of Bari Pork Store on 18th Avenue, has been selling his specialty Italian foods to residents of Bensonhurst for 35 years. When he first opened up his store, he said, his main customers were mainly of Italian and Irish descent. About 10 years ago he felt a major shift in his business, feeling a loss of about 40 percent of his customers.
“They moved away,” Turrigiano said.
He said that the arriving Chinese immigrants do not shop in his store. He said he doesn’t plan to change anything in his store to try to draw in different customers because they don’t stop in and shop.
Maria Ferrera, 63, moved to Bensonhurst in May 1975. She said that the neighborhood was a predominantly Italian community. She described it as a place in which everyone knew each other, said “hello” to one another when passing by. It was a nice neighborhood to raise her children, because many of them played with neighbors’ children. She noticed a change a little over a decade ago, when many of those familiar neighbors moved out and Chinese immigrants bought their homes.
“They bought the property, literally came to the neighborhood with shopping bags full of money and paid cash for their homes,” Ferrera said.
The change occurred gradually and she said that over time, there was a change in the “flavor or the neighborhood.” Her surrounding blocks of 64th Street and 15th Avenue lost its “Italian aromas” and were replaced with the smells of a different kind of home cooking: noodles. She finds it difficult to communicate with her new neighbors.
The biggest change Ferrera saw was that popular stores that were around for years started to close down. Italian fruit stores and meat shops called salumerie were losing business or packing up to move to other parts of New York and New Jersey. A parishioner at Regina Pacis, she started going to mass at a different time because they were in different languages. She said there was a big decline in the amount of Italian parishioners at the church. The English mass she used to attend on Sunday morning at 9:15 turned into a Spanish one.
Marianne Teta, 63, lived in Bensonhurst most of her life. She said that the neighborhood that she always knew, one with a strong Italian heritage, has become one that she can hardly recognize or identify with anymore.
“Stores either had English or Italian words written across their awnings and buildings,” Teta said. “Now when you go shopping everything is in Chinese.”
Margaret and Paul Brucato have lived in Bensonhurst for 50 years. They, like all residents of Bensonhurst, have noticed a change in the neighborhood, but said it does not affect them.
“The neighborhood is still good,” Margaret said. “We welcomed our neighbors who came in, and we are fortunate that they are very nice and take good care of their property.”
The Brucatos had relatives living in the neighborhood, but they moved way a few years ago, mainly to Long Island. They ask them all the time why they don’t want to do the same.
“Everything is close by. I have the stores, bakery, everything I need,” Margaret Brucato said.
Although there was a decline in the number of Italian-American parishoners, the church was able to thrive because of the immigrants who were coming to the church for comfort. The church, which became the 75th basilica in the United States on Dec. 8, is now the home to over 1,500 parishioners. The immigrant communities are learning to take ownership of the parish..
Marino said that when the church became a basilica in December, there was a weekend long celebration among its parishioners. After all the masses, the church served pancakes in the parish Youth Center. Marino said that the Spanish-speaking parishioners brought their own food, big trays of chicken, rice and beans, and even a live band, to their breakfast after mass on Sunday morning.
It was then that Marino saw the connection the parishioners had with each other, as they invited in other members, Spanish-speaking or not, to join them in their celebration.
“The evidence of that [ownership] is how many foreigners come to church. How many people come to social events that we have at the church,” Marino said. “You can’t declare people welcome. They are welcome when they say they are, and they say it in these kinds of things.”