Diocesan News

Catholics Work at Grassroots Level to Improve Neighborhoods

Vincent Arcuri Jr. says his Catholic faith instilled in him a desire to serve his community in Queens. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Arcuri Jr.)

WINDSOR TERRACE — Vincent Arcuri Jr., a parishioner of St. Pancras Church in Glendale, recalled that many years ago, when he was 18, he joined the Knights of Columbus at the urging of fellow parishioners.

Joining a group to help people planted a seed in him. Years later, he applied for membership on Queens Community Board 5 (Glendale-Middle Village) and was appointed. He is now the board’s chairman.

Arcuri believes his Catholic faith propelled him into his community board role. 

“I think it’s probably the way we were raised,” he said. “Catholics are raised to respect everybody and to help everybody,” he said.

All over the Diocese of Brooklyn, parishioners are rolling up their sleeves, joining community boards and civic groups, and working at the grassroots level to make their neighborhoods better places to live.

The connection between Catholicism and civic involvement “is not a coincidence,” said Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association. 

“You bring your faith into everything you do,” she said.

The teamwork involved in getting a community project off the ground, like a graffiti clean up or a petition drive, comes naturally to Catholics, according to Vella-Marrone, a parishioner of St. Ephrem Church. 

“We don’t pray in church alone. We are used to coming together as a community,” she said.

One of the places Catholics have found a voice is serving on community boards.

There are 59 community boards in New York City — each board can have up to 50 members. The boards advise City Hall on such issues as zoning and land use and act as a liaison between neighborhood residents and city government. The members, who are unpaid volunteers, are appointed by the borough president and a local City Council member. One must live or work in the community board area in order to serve.

Priscilla Consolo became a Brooklyn Community Board 11 member when she was an aide to Assemblyman William Colton, whose district included parts of Bensonhurst, the same neighborhood covered by the board. Working for Colton fostered in her a desire to work on grassroots issues. But it was something else, too. 

“I think it was part of my Catholic upbringing — the desire to serve people,” said Consolo, a parishioner at Our Lady of Grace Church in Gravesend. 

Priscilla Consolo has met priests and parish leaders over the years who have inspired her to serve her Brooklyn community. (Photo courtesy of Priscilla Consolo)

Over the years, she has met priests and parish leaders who inspired her in that direction.

Consolo, a lawyer, is no longer a Board 11 member, but she hasn’t left community board life behind. She has applied for membership on Brooklyn Community Board 15, which represents parts of Gravesend, where she lives.

Eugene Kelty Jr., chairman of Queens Community Board 7 (Flushing-College Point-Whitestone) and president of the Whitestone Boosters Civic Association, is a parishioner of the Church of St. Mel in Flushing. 

He didn’t always make the connection between faith and civic life. 

“My family has always been in civil service, helping people,” said Kelty, a retired FDNY battalion chief. 

He always assumed that coming from a family of cops, firefighters, and sanitation workers was the reason he became active.

“I guess the foundation was there. We just didn’t realize it,” he said while thinking back on his childhood and attending church.

New York City does not require community board applicants to reveal their religion, so finding data on the numbers of Catholics is difficult. But community board members and civic group leaders who spoke to The Tablet said they believe there are significant numbers of Catholics in their ranks.

Priests can also join community boards, according to Deacon Julio Barreneche, secretary for clergy personnel for the diocese. 

“There are no restrictions for clergy to serve on community boards. While it might seem to be political in nature, it is really a service to the community and not a political office,” he said. “Holding a political office is a different story. An elected office, or something like that, is not permitted.”

Msgr. David Cassato, the pastor of St. Athanasius Church in Bensonhurst, is also a member of Brooklyn Community Board 11. 

“I think it’s important for Catholics to be involved in what’s going on in their neighborhoods, like joining the community board,” he said.  “It’s where decisions are made.”

“As Catholics, we are respected. Our input is listened to,” he added.