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Million-Dollar Grant Boosts Bronx Group’s Catholic Ministry Work  

Corazon Puro holds retreats in three stages. In the first stage, participants, like those pictured here at a recent gathering, discuss St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” The second stage examines interior life and emotions, and Stage 3 focuses on the importance of chastity. (Photos: Courtesy of Corazon Puro)

SOUTH BRONX — A Catholic organization that promotes chastity in Hispanic teenagers and young adults in marginalized communities is winning national recognition for its work and is planning to expand its mission, thanks to a financial windfall.

Corazon Puro (Spanish for “Pure Heart”), a group founded in the South Bronx in 2008 that sponsors workshops, retreats, missionary formation efforts, and community service projects with a goal toward creating leaders in low-income neighborhoods, has been awarded a $1.2 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

An Indiana-based organization that is one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the U.S., Lilly Endowment awarded a total of $92 million to 77 faith-based organizations around the country this year under its Christian Parenting and Caregiving Initiative. The endowment was established in 1937 with an initial gift of $280,000 from Eli Lilly and Company but is not currently affiliated with the pharmaceutical giant.

The $1.2 million grant, which will be given to Corazon Puro in phases over a three-year period, will allow the group to introduce a new endeavor, R.E.A.L. (Reawaken and Educate Authentic Leaders) Formation, a bilingual confirmation program. 

The idea, said Corazon Puro board of directors member Holly Wright, is to “form catechists and youth leaders as well as the young people they serve in an inculturated way.”

The organization also plans to use part of the funding to develop a supplemental program for parents out of the belief that they are an important part of the faith formation of their children.

In a statement announcing the grants, Christopher L. Colbe, vice president of religion for Lilly Endowment said the awardees “embrace the important role that families have in shaping the religious development of children.”

Corazon Puro is hoping to launch R.E.A.L. Formation in 2025, said executive director Ana Tokeshi, who noted that the grant “recognizes the work that Corazon Puro has done throughout the years and will help us reach Hispanic youth.”

In addition to its home base in the South Bronx, Corazon Puro has affiliates in New Jersey and California, as well as Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Philippines.

R.E.A.L. Formation marks a significant expansion of Corazon Puro, which works mostly with teens and young adults to develop leadership skills and promote healthy families of faith. 

It is ultimately a ministry that forms its leaders in authentic love, which begins with chastity,” Wright explained.

The goal of Corazon Puro is to develop new lay leaders for the Church and leaders for the community. Altar servers take part in a training session.

Young people who attend Corazon Puro retreats learn about “Theology of the Body,” a series of 129 lectures St. John Paul II delivered between 1979 and 1984 that focused on human sexuality. At the end of the retreats, attendees make a public commitment to live according to Catholic Church teachings.

Corazon Puro was founded by Father Agustino Torres of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and Odet Bisono, a single mother from the Bronx. Wright noted that 56.3% of homes in the Bronx at the time of the group’s founding were led by single parents.

Bisono, “saw the necessity to form her children and other youth in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body,” Wright said.

Working with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Father Torres and Bisono started monthly meetings in the Bronx and Corazon Puro grew from there. The meetings still take place in a chapel at the St. Crispin Friary in the South Bronx. Wright estimated that the organization has helped 25,000 people over the years.

One of those who was helped is Esteban Carchi, a construction worker who lives in Rosedale, Queens. He started attending Corazon Puro meetings in 2015 and said it turned his life around.

Carchi, who came to the U.S. from his native Ecuador in 2002 when he was 14 and has worked at various jobs over the years to support himself, was born Catholic but found himself drifting away from the faith. Corazon Puro “brought me back to the Church,” he said.

Carchi now serves as a missionary for Corazon Puro, helping to spread the word about the organization, “because I think what they teach and what they have told me is a beautiful thing. And people need to hear it.”

Tokeshi, who started out attending the meetings and eventually moved up to become executive director, also said Corazon Puro has changed her life. 

“I believe Corazon Puro helped and inspired me to become a better leader in my parish,” she explained.