Big revival at St. Leo's

Pastor: A folksy, self-effacing priest from New York has breathed new life into the Little Italy parish.

March 31, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus today, the congregation gathered at St. Leo Roman Catholic Church in Little Italy has reason to give thanks for another revival as well -- that of their own church.

Five years ago, St. Leo's was an aging Italian parish with a diminishing congregation that was reeling from the untimely death of its pastor. About 200 people would show up each weekend for Mass, and with about 25 funerals a year, the future of the parish was in jeopardy.

A priest who was asked to take the assignment refused.

Then the Rev. Michael Salerno arrived. Ordained just four years earlier and never having been a pastor, he left his hometown of New York City and the Puerto Rican parish he'd come to love and answered the summons.

Since his arrival, membership at St. Leo's has tripled. Many of its new members are non-Italians and suburbanites who pass a dozen churches to attend Mass in the city parish. More than 50 are converts to Catholicism. And there is a vitality not seen since the heyday of Little Italy a generation ago.

"I haven't seen this many people here since I was little. And that was only on holidays. But it's like this every Sunday," said Chris Cossentino, who drives in every week with his wife and two daughters from Linthicum. "It's like a rebirth."

The agent of that rejuvenation is the parish's self-effacing priest, known to one and all simply as "Father Mike." With his thick Brooklyn accent, he delivers folksy sermons filled with stories of his Italian family.

And, reflecting his blue-collar roots and 30 years as a Catholic brother before being ordained, he often seems more comfortable making his weekly pilgrimages to feed the homeless -- delivering groceries to poor parishioners and visiting the sick -- than in the ornate vestments and elevated role of pastor.

Initially jarring

Salerno's manner was jarring at first to the old-time parishioners, used to a bit more decorum from the pulpit. "Sometimes, if you don't know him, he'll shock you," said John C. Guerriero, parish council president and a Father Mike admirer.

"If someone hasn't been here in a while, he just stops [in the middle of Mass] and says something to one of them," said Lou Mazzulli, who attended the church as a youth and rejoined six years ago. "He's one of us. He's not one of `them' up there."

Salerno's success is all the more impressive given his humble beginnings. "I came from a bang-bang neighborhood, Red Hook," he said. His father worked on the docks.

"My father was a longshoreman at a time when longshoremen were rough," he said.

Salerno, 56, never finished high school. He was on the verge of getting into serious trouble as a 17-year-old when he was persuaded by priests he knew to enter a religious order called the Pallottines as a lay brother. In those days, brothers did all the manual labor in the church, and Salerno recalls years of scrubbing church floors on his hands and knees, painting, doing maintenance -- whatever had to be done.

"I think I wanted to be a priest when I was young, but I just couldn't get there because of my background," he said. "I didn't have the education. So I served God as best I could, as a brother."

Changes in the church

In those days, "You came in a brother, you died a brother," Salerno said. But starting in the mid-1960s, the Catholic Church began to update its theology and religious practices, and brothers began to be incorporated into the ministry of the church. Salerno began to work in a parish. With the help of friends, he was able to earn his high school equivalency diploma at age 32, and he started taking courses in theology.

In 1982, he was ordained a permanent deacon, an office mostly held by married men. Deacons can perform many sacramental functions such as preaching and presiding at funerals and baptisms, but they can't celebrate Mass or hear confessions.

Again, he was content and would not have pursued the priesthood if his religious superior hadn't asked him to in 1991. Two years later, he was ordained a priest. "I came into the priesthood through the back door," he said, chuckling.

Salerno was first assigned to a Brooklyn parish that had once been Italian but had become predominantly Puerto Rican. Fluent in five dialects of Italian, Salerno mastered Spanish and became adept at inner-city street ministry.

He acknowledges that he retains a bit of the street minister. Once a week, usually on Friday, he recruits a half-dozen parishioners to caravan to the Baltimore Rescue Mission on Central Avenue with cold-cut sandwiches, bowls of hot soup and clothes for homeless people waiting for a bed for the night. He says he feels more comfortable there than wearing ornate vestments and celebrating Mass, having hundreds hang on his every word.

"There are times I'm happier being out delivering groceries to poor people," he said.

Old ways and newcomers

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