My introduction to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen came at the age of 5. My newborn sister was safely at home in Philadelphia in the care of two grandmothers, one grandfather, one uncle and, especially, one aunt. That October my parents brought me to Manhattan for the first time. Apparently I showed some reluctance when I learned that it was an “island,” only to be reassured when my father got out an old gas-station map of New Jersey and showed me that the Jersey shore towns were also on islands. The visit was magical for me. My memory is that Times Square shone even brighter in 1947 than it does today. Though the new sights and sounds and smells were overwhelming, it is a taste sensation that has stuck with me.
On Saturday night, as we were returning to our hotel, my father got the notion that he wanted a sandwich. Not just any sandwich, but swiss cheese on rye bread. My mother and I were game for the quest, and off we headed north and west until we found a proper deli. Well supplied, we walked back to the hotel with our decidedly non-room service fare concealed by my father’s jacket draped over his arm. In the elevator he was admonished that guests should wear their jackets. It was that kind of place. But the stuffiness did not diminish my pleasure eating those sandwiches that night. Back home my uncle was horrified. “You went wandering through Hell’s Kitchen on a Saturday night?!” He had been a signals officer on the Murmansk run during World War II, but swore that he would never have done what we did.
Jump forward five decades. The mean streets once dominated by the Westies, the powerful Irish gang, are mean no longer. An attempt to use the name Clinton, the neighborhood just to the north, to replace Hell’s Kitchen seems to have run out of steam. By no means fully gentrified, the neighborhood is in shock at the explosive rise of property prices.
Since 1998, the neighborhood has been blessed by the presence of the Sisters of Life of New York , the religious order founded in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor to promote the Gospel of Life by witness, prayer and action. The parish convent where the sisters live still contains many memories of the Sisters of Charity of New York . Memorial plaques dot the residence. I’ve always been especially taken by one in honor of the generosity of The Circle Information Girls. Nearly next to the convent is an old New York Telephone building from the days of 411 and Circle 6. It reminds us to say a prayer of thanks for the “girls,” ladies who are now grandmothers.
In his last year of life, visibly suffering from the illness that would take him, Cardinal O’Connor made the trip across town to celebrate the dedication Mass for the new foundation in Sacred Heart Church. This was one culmination of his visionary project for the sisters, who have opened their home as a place of “holy respite” for mothers in crisis pregnancies. For nearly 10 years the sisters at Sacred Heart have cared for mothers and nurtured their newborns with dedication and joy.
I am allowed to tease a bit about “convent clean” and say, “It’s no secret that the sisters at Sacred Heart work too hard.” Actually, all of the sisters work very hard indeed in outreach ministry, post-abortion healing for women and men, and directing retreats at Villa Maria Guadalupe Retreat House in Stamford, Conn., in collaboration with the Knights of Columbus, who have been faithfully supportive of the sisters.
At Sacred Heart, some of the most joyous moments occur after a mother has given birth and returned home. After they have moved on, most mothers return with their children for visits. Nothing can be more encouraging for the sisters, whose practical embrace of the Gospel message is shared daily with their guests. The “holy respite” that is provided totally recasts the image of Hell’s Kitchen in my mind from my first view of it so many years ago.
And to end where I began, that long weekend in New York was cut short by a day. By mutual agreement, we all wanted to go home: to my baby sister, to both grandmothers, to grandfather, uncle and aunt. A 5-year old could not reflect on how blessed we were to have one another, how blessed we were to miss one another. Reflection and gratitude come easier with age. On reflection now, I am grateful for the presence and the work of the Sisters of Life, seeing that they provide a “one another” for those whose lives they touch.