NEW YORK (CNN) — On a park bench outside a Manhattan housing project, Jenny Ortiz, 65, remembered the day she and several parishioners were led out of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in handcuffs.
A handful of East Harlem residents had staged a peaceful protest one night in 2007 after the New York Archdiocese announced plans to close their beloved parish.
They occupied the rear pews of the redbrick church, Ortiz said. They sang hymns and prayed. Church officials called the police, who moved in as soon as the protesters finished saying the rosary. They were arrested and later issued summonses for trespassing.
“My daughter and my grandchildren were baptized there,” Ortiz said. “It hurt to be taken out of our church like criminals.”
On Friday, Pope Francis will visit the parish school, which is flanked by housing projects and still operates behind the shuttered church.
The visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School, which serves 295 mostly Latino and black children, is in line with Francis’ mission of serving immigrants, the marginalized and the poor. It also illustrates the Roman Catholic Church’s struggles with changing times, diminishing congregations and a dwindling priesthood.
On the double red doors outside the sanctuary, signs in Spanish and English read: “Welcome to East Harlem Pope Francis. The parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels continue on the sidewalk. PLEASE OPEN OUR CHURCH.”
Sitting outside the Thomas Jefferson Houses, adjacent to the church, Ortiz said, “We hope to have our church back someday.”
The Pope is scheduled to meet two dozen students from four Catholic elementary schools, including six third- and fourth-graders from Our Lady Queen of Angels.
Francis also will meet migrants and refugees from Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, Africa, India and Pakistan. They will include day laborers, immigrant mothers, car wash workers and unaccompanied minors who crossed the border without their parents and helped start a soccer league in the Bronx.
“This is his most important stop,” Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities, said the of the Pope’s East Harlem visit. “We think this is the perfect place for Pope Francis to be.”
It’s the first visit to the United States by the first pope from Latin America.
In a historic address to Congress on Thursday, Francis asked lawmakers to embrace millions of undocumented immigrants.
“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” he told lawmakers, military brass, Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members.
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
In addition to the East Harlem stop, the Jesuit pope’s itinerary includes time with homeless people in Washington and prisoners in Philadelphia.
“He’s an instinctual politician and the people he relates to are those he regards as the most fragile,” said Margaret Crahan, director of the Cuba program at the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University.
“His persona is very much linked to relating to people in a very direct fashion. … And he derives warmth from children.”
In a classroom at the Manhattan school, where nearly 70% of students are Hispanic and 22% black, the children will sing for the special guest — himself a son of immigrants. They will pray and talk about community service and the environment.
The visit comes at a time when New York has shuttered dozens of parochial schools in recent years in part because of demographic changes and diminishing enrollments.
“I hope his visit fundamentally changes the conversation about Catholic education in America,” said Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent and chief academic officer at the Partnership for Inner-City Education, which manages Our Lady Queen of Angels and five other schools in the Bronx and Harlem.
“The headlines have been largely negative over the past several years. … People have talked about schools closing and struggling and Catholics moving out of the city to the suburbs. That’s really put pressure on the schools, particularly those that serve our neediest students.”
Across the street from the school, the owner of Vianel Beauty Salon, Vianel Garcia, spoke proudly about her three children having graduated from Our Lady Queen of Angels.
Since learning of Francis’ visit to the school, Garcia has been preparing. The salon has a fresh coat of paint, its walls adorned with photos and illustrations of the Pope. She had posters made: “Vianel Beauty Salon welcomes Pope Francis.”
“This Pope is so different from the rest,” said Garcia, a native of the Dominican Republic. “He wants to get close to people. He is simple and humble.”
Garcia and friends will spend the night before the Pope’s arrival in her mother’s apartment, which is attached to the salon. They will cook, pray, sing and talk while waiting for a close-up glimpse of Francis from the salon windows.
“Of all the places for the Pope to visit, he’s coming to East Harlem,” Garcia said. “We need his blessing.”
Lili Garcia, who is not related to the salon owner, will be among those at the business to see Francis. She said she married her late husband, Olivario, at Our Lady of Queen of Angels Church more than 50 years ago. They met at a factory: He was 18; she was 17.
After her husband died last year, Lili Garcia returned to the church to discover it was closed.
“I sat outside and thought about all we had gone through together as a couple — the good, the bad,” she said. “This community needs that church. There is a lot of violence, a lot of need, a lot of hunger.”
Every Sunday since the church closed in 2007, about a dozen or so former parishioners have gathered on park benches across the street to pray.
“I never thought they would survive this long,” said Carlos Soto, 67, husband of Jenny Ortiz, who still participates in the weekly gatherings.
Ortiz said, “We share our pains and our sorrows. We visit the sick and pray for the community.”
When the church was founded in 1886, it served German immigrants and later Italians that came after them. When it closed eight years ago, the baptisms, marriages and funerals were mostly for Dominicans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.
In East Harlem, some believe the papal visit will bring change, that the church could reopen.
“He’s a people person,” Maciel Soto, 39, Ortiz’s daughter, said of Francis. “He wants to be as normal as he can be. For the first time, we have a pope like us. Maybe there’ll be a miracle.”