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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

At 110, A Bronx Church Tries to Reinvent Itself

Editor's note: Been meaning to post this story that first appeared in the May 4 edition of the Norwood News. So here it is. Photo slideshow by Adi Talwar. See more of Adi's work at rawlat.com/adi.

By Lulaine Compere

If not for an official from a faraway West African nation, the Church of the Holy Nativity in Norwood would have seen its 110th birth year come and go without so much as a peep.

“One of our wardens from Sierra Leone got us to celebrate our 110the anniversary,” says Richard Kelly, a longtime parishioner.

That Holy Nativity, an Episcopalian congregation, was reminded of its lengthy local history by a man from Sierra Leone, says a lot about the state of the church. Some long-standing church members, like Kelly, remain. But like many area churches, Holy Nativity’s numbers have shrunk and its congregation has diversified racially and ethnically.

Holy Nativity sits planted on the corner of Bainbridge Avenue, right where the street takes a hard turn south at 204th Street, with its stone structure and wooden doors overlooking the neighborhood as it has since 1906. The congregation moved there from its original location a few blocks away on what is now Mosholu Parkway.

“My parents were married in the church,” says Ruth Dittmar, who has attended Holy Nativity since the 1930s. “I grew up going to this church.”

Dittmar has witnessed first-hand, the slow yet dramatic change in the congregation. “We had a big exodus after World War II. It was all white before, Jews, Irish, and Germans and gradually the neighborhood changed,” she said. “People used to live in the neighborhood and attend the church, then they moved across the city line. But the faithful will get here somehow.”

Kelly, who has attended Holy Nativity since the late 1960s says attendance was good back then.

“Over the years some moved, died, or lost interest,” says Kelly.

These days, only a few dozen people attend services, according to parishioners. They are older and there are fewer children. The majority of the parishioners hail from the Caribbean, but others come from far and wide.

One of Holy Nativity’s main obstacles for growth is a lack of leadership. Kelly says the church has been without a permanent priest for months. “We have been using ‘supply’ priests since January and we have to keep doing that until we can get someone on a permanent basis,” he says.

Inside, Holy Nativity’s aesthetic is simple: polished wood, the green cloths draped over the altar, the small choir and pulpit sections and the huge wooden cross above everything. You will not see elaborate designs, only a few decorative windows. The main feature in the sanctuary is the Victory Memorial window, which was installed after World War II. The damage the church sustained in 2009 when a five-alarm blaze destroyed 10 stores on Bainbridge Avenue is unnoticeable.

Even as the church tries to work through its problems, they have kept it busy and upbeat. On a recent Palm Sunday, the church combined services with nearby Epiphany Lutheran, swelling the ranks, at least for a time.

“We have coffee hours like all Episcopal churches,” Kelly says. “We are a very warm church, we hope to recruit more, and we hope to become stronger as a church and serve the community.”


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