Door to door
In the early days of the parish, Vallina went out to evangelize a neighborhood that every day received more and more Cuban families whose lives were derailed by communism and were separated of their loved ones who remained in Cuba.
Vallina visited every home, climbing stairs, announcing the good news: “Christ lives and is with us, and is waiting for you at the Sacred Mass at Tivoli Movie Theater. Be there!”
To exiles, the Sunday Mass was like a balm, a reunion with their blood in a foreign land. Soon, the theater became too small for its flock.
In December 1963, Vallina received the keys to a rundown garage seven blocks away. The parishioners renovated it, and acquired an adjacent lot where there was a funeral home. Since then, San Juan Bosco has extended a hand to every needy person who knocks at its door.
From 1992 to 2007 it offered free medical services to uninsured people.
Difficulties of base communities
The proliferation of services that have turned the church into a major social assistant center, as well as the deterioration of the original building that sheltered the church, prompted the construction of the current church, inaugurated in 2001, whose numerous images of the saints of Hispanic countries evoke Latin American churches.
One of the challenges San Juan Bosco has faced has been the mobility of the population. As they became increasingly prosperous, many Cubans have moved to better neighborhoods and joined other parishes, leaving their leadership roles in San Juan Bosco’s lay ministries.
Multiple waves of political and economic migrants have created a floating congregation. Today, Nicaraguans and other Central American immigrants have taken the place of Cubans, and arrive in need at the church as their predecessors did.
The rise of crime in the area has affected the stability of the congregation, although the police presence has improved in recent years.
Isabel Espinola, administrative assistant at the parish for 25 years, said that vandalism — once the image of the Virgin of Charity was stolen in the light of day, though was later recovered — and sacrilege — excrement has been repeatedly left at the altar — have forced the parish to keep the sanctuary closed except during services. (The chapel remains open.)
Despite the difficulties, this poor, missionary community continues to embrace, love, understand and serve all immigrants under the guidance of its current pastor, the Rev. Juan Carlos Paguaga, a Nicaraguan.
“The love of Christ is the base of our ministry,” Paguaga said, “and the force that keeps our perspective into the future.”