Editor's Note: this article was first published in the July edition of the Tremont Tribune, out and online now.
|The section of Crotona Parkway in front of St. Thomas Aquinas Church is now|
Bishop Francisco Garmendia Place, in honor of the parish’s late pastor.
(Photo by Jeanmarie Evelly)
“He loved his people,” said Betty Cleary, who worked for years as Garmendia’s secretary. “He would go to door-to-door through the neighborhood. Everybody was his family.”
A new street sign was unveiled June 29 at a special memorial ceremony, at 1900 Crotona Parkway near Fairmount Place, in front of St. Thomas Aquinas, the ornate stone church where Garmendia was priest for over 25 years.
The parish also officially opened a small museum in parish basement in the Bishop’s honor, filled with photos, news clippings, letters and other items from his time at the church.
“We will never forget the teachings of Bishop Garmendia,” said local Councilman Joel Rivera, who sponsored the City Council bill to have the street renamed and, along with several other community leaders, has strong ties to St. Thomas Aquinas: Rivera is a longtime parishioner of the church, and so is his mother, Community Board 6 District Manager Ivine Galarza. His chief-of-staff, Albert Alvarez, was an altar boy for Garmendia.
“He was a leader. He worked with so many families to make sure they had a home here,” Rivera recalled. “His message will live on as we walk up and down this street.
A native of Spain, Garmendia first taught in Argentina before coming to the Bronx, and joined St. Thomas Aquinas in 1976.
“This whole area of the South Bronx was devastated when he came here,” said Kathleen Keefe, who worked with the Bishop at the Archdiocese. “He would walk through the streets leading people in prayer.”
Garmendia took a special interest in working with the addicted, according to John Burke, the former principal at nearby St. Thomas Aquinas school, and helped get many into treatment and recovery programs.
In 1990, after working with the growing number of new immigrants in the neighborhood struggling to adjust, the Bishop helped found The HopeLine, a bilingual telephone counseling and referral service that still exists today.
The spring of that same year was the horrific Happy Land Social Club fire, a blaze that took place at an unlicensed night club just blocks from St. Thomas Aquinas that killed 87 people, mostly Honduran immigrants from the neighborhood. Bishop Garmendia was instrumental in counseling the victims’ grieving families and would lead a memorial mass on the anniversary of the tragedy every year after.
Garmendia retired from the parish in 2001. He died in 2005, at the age of 81.