In Ages Past
A Jesuit in Little Italy: Father Nicholas Russo, S.J.
There were numerous challenges, not all financial. There was local prejudice from nearby pastors. Russo was once denied use of the upper church at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral,* he wrote, "for reasons which a priest should feel ashamed to give." He occupied a small room in a tenement house. All in all, it was lonely, hard work, and he couldn't help believing that
. . . things would not be in so bad a shape now . . . if they had been taken in hand in due time . . . Look back to the first years of Italian immigration. Who was there to smoothe [sic] their first difficulties, to warn them of the danger, to sympathize with their distressed condition, to turn their mind to heaven, and to remind them of their immortal soul?
But the people's "own indifference" was a problem, too. And sometimes there was outright hostility, as Russo later recalled:
We were oftentimes received with the coldest indifference; not seldom avoided; at times greeted with insulting remarks. The word pretaccio (pretender), as we passed by, was one of the mildest.
Still, he felt sympathy for the men, who "work like slaves." Eventually, he added, "We had a nice little crowd" in the parish. His compassionate approach helped win over the people:
We spoke kindly to them; told them that we were not after their money; that we had come to be their friends and look after their souls; and finally begged them to send their children to us in the afternoon and come with them if possible.
To keep the young men involved in the parish, he started the St. Aloysius Club. Members produced plays that he composed. For those who only knew him as a professor, it was interesting to see how he would make himself "all to all." He also started devotions to the Sacred Heart, a traditional Jesuit devotion, which drew hundreds.
On April 1, 1902, he died at age 56 of pneumonia in his room. "There can be little doubt," one Jesuit wrote, "that he shortened his life by his constant labor for these poor people." By then, Our Lady of Loreto drew some 3,000 every Sunday, and the school had nearly 700 students. Russo was remembered for his "zeal, patience, death to self, and charity." In his willingness to meet the needs of the day, without regard to personal comfort, Nicholas Russo proved a true Jesuit, giving without counting the cost.
* The original St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street was built in 1809. The current cathedral on Fifth Avenue was completed in 1879.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.