Disenchanted and angry parishioners at St. Athanasius Parish rallied outside the church, calling for the new pastor’s removal.
On Saturday, August 21, hundreds of the faithful demonstrated at Father Gigante Plaza at 878 Tiffany Street, calling on the Archdiocese of New York to remove newly appointed pastor Reverend Jose Rivas from the post that he assumed in July.
Fr. Rivas alienated much of the congregation by forcing out Sister Thomas, a nun who has devoted more than 49 years of service to the church and whose thrift sales help support the parish food pantry. He also fired or forced out several well-liked church clergy, workers and volunteers, some of whom served the parish for decades.
The group organizing the event, calling themselves “Save St. Athanasius Parish” are angry that Fr. Rivas made a complete sweep of the parish, which withstood arson and abandonment decades ago to serve as a focal point in Hunts Point and Longwood’s redevelopment.
The group said that Fr. Rivas is bringing in all of his own people from Saint John Chrysostom, where by most accounts he was a well-liked parish priest.
“This man came in with an iron fist and an agenda all his own,” said organizer Anthony Centeno. “He fired people for no reason or provided unsubstantiated charges. We fought to save this church when it was a battleground in the 1960s, and will not stop protesting until he is removed as pastor. We are not protesting against the parish or the Archdiocese. ”
Fr. Rivas first raised eyebrows when he displaced Sister Thomas, who began work as a teacher in St. Athanasius School in the 1960s and then headed up the Simpson Street Development Association for 33 years.
According to parishioners, Fr. Rivas threw out clothing that she had collected for her tag sales, and refused to let her use a garage belonging to the church.
Thomas is a beloved figure in the community, and was at the protest behind a barricade with fellow members of the Sisters of Charity, her religious order.
“I have been part of this community since 1975 and I consider Sister Thomas a pillar of this community,” said Peter Cantillo, president of the South East Bronx Community Organization, a non-profit housing developer. “To see her disrespected and asked to leave the church is a great outrage for me.”
Castillo said that he does not understand Fr. Rivas’ motives, but has heard that the pastor is preaching that there is an evil in the parish that needs to be removed. Sandra Acosta, who is a former member of Community Board 2, said that Sister Thomas is tireless in helping those in need.
“I am not a die-hard Catholic, but I know of Sister Thomas because she is everywhere,” Acosta said. “Whether it is the precinct breakfast, tag sales, running the food pantry, tutoring children, or attending baptisms and funerals, she is always there when the community needs her.”
In addition to Sister Thomas, the removal of Sister Louise Mikeski, who headed up the church’s Religious Education Program, also raised eyebrows.
“If Fr. Rivas is not removed, I will not come back to St. Athanasius,” Centeno stated.
Neither the Archdiocese of New York or Fr. Rivas commented as of press time.