A Century of Catholic Worship in Spanish

Our Lady of Esperanza in Washington Heights has served Spanish-speaking Catholics for 100 years. (Photo by José Acosta/El Diario-La Prensa)

The first church to serve Latino members of the Archdiocese of New York, the Church of Our Lady of Esperanza, has not only been a house of worship in Washington Heights for a century, but it has also provided the community with various social services throughout its history.

“The beautiful thing about this church is that all of us who work here are volunteers, which has played a part in preserving it and making churchgoers view it as their second home,” said Luisa Landrón, 76, of Puerto Rican descent. Landrón runs the church office and has been a member for 50 years.

Our Lady of Esperanza is a small church that attracts around 400 people to each Mass; but within its depths lie incredible works of art like the Virgin of Charity, an icon hand-sculpted with gold pieces by Ramón Mateu in 1918, and a chandelier donated by King Alfonso XVII of Spain in 1912, comprised of three small angels representing the divine trinity.

Until a few years ago, the church displayed a painting of St. Joseph with the baby Jesus by the artist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, who donated it. However, out of fear of robbery, a copy now hangs in the painting’s place, while the original is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The thieves broke a stained glass window. They got in and took two candelabras and the Christ. We brought the painting to the museum in order to protect it,” explained Landrón. “It’s the first religious painting that Sorolla made in the United States, and many Spaniards come here to see it,” she said.

Services the church provides include Alcoholics Anonymous and teaching the catechism to more than 250 New York City public school students.

“The best thing about this church is its people, who volunteer their time and feel like they’re part of everything,” said Rev. Carlos López, the parish’s vicar.

Our Lady of Esperanza was the first church founded to serve Spanish-speaking Catholic New Yorkers. (Photo via Wikipedia)

The church was built in 1912 in an era when the number of Spanish-speaking Catholics in New York was relatively low. Archer M. Huntington, a young American heir to a huge fortune, gifted the church to the community after he received a request from Doña Manuela de Laverrerie de Barril, the Peruvian wife of Spain’s consul general in New York at the time.

Although not Catholic, Huntington decided to erect the church to cater to Spanish-speaking Catholics right next to the Hispanic Society of America, a museum he had founded next door in 1904 to display his collection of art from Spanish. For this, he bought nearly a city block of property on Broadway between 156th and 157th Streets.

“The church, which was declared a landmark in 1979, was the first building erected on this block. There was no road here, that’s why the church is on a hill, on an second level, and many used to get to it in horse-drawn carts,” said Landrón.

Our Lady of Esperanza became the cradle of faith for Latino Catholics in the city, and people came from Brooklyn and New Jersey to celebrate baptisms, weddings and funerals.

In the 1960s, a lot of Cuban arrived in the parish, refugees from the revolution in their homeland. And in the 1970s, great waves of immigrants from the Dominican Republic followed.

For Gladys Mota, a Dominican who teaches catechism, the church has been her spiritual refuge since she came to New York in the 1980s.

“We visit the sick and we support them, we recite the rosary at church members’ homes, and we have an Alcoholics Anonymous program,” she said.

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