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A Community Church, in Need of Support

By Jaslee Carayol

Members of the Filipino community travel from their home neighborhoods to attend Mass at a special chapel in downtown Manhattan, the Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz.  Dedicated to the first and only Filipino saint, the chapel is the official “Church of Filipinos” as designated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.  Though the chapel is important to the community, its location far from New York’s substantial Filipino population makes its status unstable.

Though the chapel can accommodate up to 250 people, significantly less than that attend the twice-weekly Mass.  Fewer than 100 people attend the Sunday service and fewer than 50 people show up on a typical Wednesday, said a church coordinator.

Since attendance is not high, the chapel is struggling. Vicky Baxa, a chairperson who coordinates the Mass, said that the chapel is under evaluation by the Archdiocese.

“Our main goal is to have more services so we have more people,” Baxa said.  “If there is no attendance, how can you support the church?  You have to maintain the financial, you know, the material as well as the spiritual.”

One worshipper in particular is working to maintain the chapel’s material assets.  Corazon Lontok, a Bayside resident, launched KCOP – the Keep the Chapel Open Project – in 2010 to raise money for the chapel.

“I felt that nobody’s going to support this church – it’s not going to be Chinese, Koreans, Italians – but Filipinos because San Lorenzo Ruiz is a Filipino saint,” Lontok said.

Her goal is to get members Filipinos to donate a dollar a month to the San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel because it is a community church.  Lontok said the chapel is important to her and remains optimistic that her initiative will help.

“It means a lot because it is the home for our one and only saint,” Lontok said.  “I don’t think of the negative closing.  I leave it in the hands of God as long as we do our best.”

The chapel also means a lot to other members of the Filipino community, even if they are unable to attend the services regularly.  Leila Sumulong, an upper East Side resident, is a daily worshipper at a parish closer to her home.  She said she would attend Mass at the chapel more often if it were closer.  Sumulong said she feels a connection to the Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz because of her Filipino roots.

“It’s hard to explain,” Sumulong said.  “Being Filipino as well as knowing that you come from the same country, being in a foreign country and being in a church that’s dedicated to a Catholic Filipino saint, somehow gives you a feeling of being at home.”

That connection is why Sumulong had the Mass for her husband’s 40th day death anniversary at the chapel in 2008.  The death anniversary is a Catholic tradition that is frequently practiced in the Philippines.  Mass is offered the 40th day after the deceased “joins his or her creator.”

“He’d been wanting to go to this church being that it’s the first Filipino saint that we have, but unfortunately he passed away before we actually were able to come here,” Sumulong said of her husband.  “So I felt that having it was here was having him around on that day.”

The Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz opened in 2005, but the Filipino Apostolate, which is a Catholic organization dedicated to the mission of the Church, was established by the Archdiocese years earlier.  The Filipino Apostolate was originally housed in a building on East 62nd Street, but is currently located in the Broome Street chapel given to the community by the Archdiocese.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Marabe, moderator of the San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel and director of the Filipino Apostolate of the Archdiocese of New York, was appointed to his position in 2009.  Marabe, who is Filipino, took on the responsibility of the chapel in addition to his commitments at St. Patrick’s Cathedral because he felt it would be for the good of the community.

“Filipinos are 95 percent Catholics,” Marabe said.  “In other words, we of the Catholic Church would want to serve this people because [of their] number and also because of their faith.”

The Chapel of San Lorenzo Ruiz is not a typical parish because the churchgoers are either walk-ins from the neighborhood or community members visiting from different churches.  Most of the churchgoers are Filipino, but some are Latino or Italian so the service is administered in English with sections in Tagalog, Spanish and Italian.

Antero Martinez, a Rego Park resident and chapel choir member, is working to promote the chapel though online marketing and social media.  Martinez also acknowledged that the chapel is struggling, but remained optimistic about its future.

“And I always believe that this chapel was given to the Filipino community, the Filipino-American community,” Martinez said.  “I always believe that it’s the chapel that could.”

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