Hope Amidst Urban Woes

December 10, 2018

Fr. Gregory Maturi, O.P., is the former pastor of St. Dominic’s Parish in Youngstown, Ohio.  He is currently assigned to the vicariate of Eastern Africa. 

In the Fall of 2009 I was elected prior of St Dominic’s in Youngstown, Ohio and installed as pastor. I figured that it would be an ordinary assignment. As fate would have it, however, it quickly became a very out-of-the ordinary assignment. Just three months after becoming pastor, a parishioner was murdered in the Church parking lot, and just eight months after that a second parishioner was murdered and his wife shot just two blocks from the Church after leaving the Church property. As a result of these two events my ministry at St Dominic’s changed radically.

I became a “community organizer” of sorts, spending the next six years working to renew and revitalize the neighborhood around St Dominic’s which over the previous forty years, because of the demise of the steel industry, had become a blighted, crime ridden neighborhood, filled with poor, minority residents, a typical inner city parish where many of the parishioners had fled to the suburbs.

My work involved talking with local, state and federal politicians, law enforcement officials, and prominent members of the community. The media facilitated this work by giving me a lot of airtime, through newspaper articles, radio and TV interviews. I became a central figure in addressing the problems of the southside of Youngstown and helped to facilitate its solution. As a result of this work, the mayor of Youngstown coined the phrase “Operation Redemption.” St Dominic Church became the epicenter of Operation Redemption and the renewal of the southside of Youngstown.

The work was arduous and intensive. I spent most of my waking hours talking on the phone or in person with different people and arranging events. We held “safety summits,” community events, fund raisers and numerous meetings. The safety summits were public forums sponsored by the state attorney general where the people of Youngstown could hear directly from federal, state and local politicians and law enforcement officers as to how they planned to address the safety issues on the southside. The attendees, in turn, were able to ask questions and offer suggestions. These “safety summits” took place at St Dominic’s and had the good effect of uniting the community and helping federal, state and local law enforcement to coordinate better their resources. By the end of my seven years violent crime had decreased precipitously.

St Dominic’s also coordinated with other churches and community organizations to sponsor good, wholesome family events. The rationale is simple; neighborhood renewal comes about by replacing bad activity with good. Fund raisers helped to finance these community events. All of these activities helped to develop good will between the Church and the residents of the southside who looked to St Dominic’s for leadership.

As a result of these activities we were able to reestablish our grade school (which had been closed for ten years) as a charter school and provide an active grade school with four hundred students, grades K-8, many of whom came from the immediate neighborhood.

In addition, we built a $1.4 million parish center to accommodate three hundred people. This parish center also served as a community center to allow people in the neighborhood to use it for family events such as graduations, birthday parties, baby showers and wedding receptions. It is a beautiful reception facility that because of its intelligent design costs very little to maintain, and so renting it costs a fraction of similar facilities in the wealthier suburbs. As a result, the parish center not only offered a great benefit to the poor, minority population on the southside, but also gained a source of income to help maintain the parish.

In these seven years we also managed to demolish eighty abandoned, blighted and nuisance houses in a four block radius around the Church. These houses had become havens for criminal behavior such as drug houses, gang hangouts, and houses of prostitution. Due to mold, pest infestation and feral animals they had become uninhabitable and irreparable. Monies for demolition came from local, state and federal grants, as well as private donation. After the demolitions were completed, we cleaned up the vacant lots, smoothed them out, planted grass and maintained them so that neighborhood children could use them for playing and other family events. The fields have since been used for various sports and community events. The removal of these blighted houses significantly increased the beauty of the neighborhood and encouraged those living in the remaining houses to take pride in the neighborhood and so take better care of their own property. The result of this work was to create a safe and beautiful environment for families in the neighborhood to flourish.

Our philosophy of neighborhood renewal is simple; bring in good activity aimed at fostering family life. Rather than establish soup kitchens or homeless shelters (which are good), we chose instead to direct our energies to establish strong family relationships within the poor, minority community.

To this end we organized monthly events for young people that required their parents to attend also. Once-a-month we invited 300 kids and their parents from the neighborhood to a pizza party in the new parish center. After eating we had buses take the kids and their parents to the downtown arena to watch a family oriented show such as: the Harlem Globetrotters, Disney on Ice, Barnum & Bailey circus, Walking with Dinosaurs, and various sports events. In addition we sponsored an Easter egg hunt which attracted over six hundred kids and their families and which included lots of candy and prizes. We also sponsored Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner along with a Christmas tree surrounded by presents and the singing of carols. These annual events were held in the parish center with some three hundred people attending. In addition we sponsored an annual Neighborhood Festival in our parking lot which included food and fun that attracted over eight hundred people.

Finally we sponsored an eight week Summer program for one hundred and fifty children from the neighborhood that provided good activity for them from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, Monday – Friday. A small fee was required and parents had to drop off and pick up their kids. The summer program was both fun and unabashedly Christian. It included reading the Bible and other educational points of interest, such as a trip to the Cleveland zoo. The goal of the summer program was to help young people develop virtuous friendships and so become better citizens.

All of this activity, though sponsored by St Dominic’s, was funded by outside organizations such as the United Way, the YMCA, the Boys and Girls club, government grants and private donations. Such donations were fostered by the positive media coverage of St Dominic’s and its work to renew and revitalize the southside, including a documentary by CNN (who gave me the moniker; “the Crime Fighting Priest”), as well as the good relationship we had developed with local, state and federal officials. Because of the leadership of St Dominic’s, many people were more than willing to donate.

Another important element of Operation Redemption was the fact that we always invited law enforcement (local police, state troopers and county sheriffs) to be present at our activities. We wanted young people to have a positive relationship with law enforcement and not be afraid of them or consider them as the enemy.

Of course, all of this activity transpired within the normal rhythms of the Church life which includes daily Mass, regular confession and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We could not have accomplished this work without the prayer and the grace of the sacraments. Whenever the media interviewed me, I always made the point that our goal is not to solve people’s problems but to give them hope, which we can give because we believe in the power of prayer to work miracles and in the grace of Jesus Christ to change human hearts. That grace comes first and foremost from the sacraments.

The overall effect of our work over the past six years has been the renewal and revitalization of the decaying neighborhood community on the southside of Youngstown where St Dominic’s is located. It also has had the effect of bringing Baptists and Catholics closer together. Many of the Baptists considered St Dominic’s as their “other parish” and referred to themselves affectionately as “Cath-Baptists.”

Most importantly, it helped to renew the image of the Catholic Church, and particularly the Catholic priesthood as truly concerned about the needs of the larger community, and not simply about their own needs. This is what the Catholic Church has done historically. This is what the Catholic Church is about. This is what the Catholic priesthood is about. This is what a priest does – he takes a leadership role in the wider community for the good of the community.

The work of renewal and revitalization never stops but requires ongoing effort. The Church needs to continue the work of Operation Redemption. Knowing that I would not always be in Youngstown I made certain that people and mechanisms were in place to maintain this good work. I am currently assigned as a missionary in the western Kenya, along with four other Dominican priests, to bring the Gospel to the poor and needy. I try to apply here the good lessons I learned in Youngstown concerning the power of prayer and the grace of Jesus Christ to build up family life.

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