Catholic begins hunger strike for closed church

Charles Mostoller

Not only Jews were fasting on Wednesday.

While Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, was marked with a single day of fasting, Catholic Miguel Ortiz, 46, was on his third full day and counting of a fast in honor of the church that took him in when he first came from Mexico to the U.S. 20 years ago — La Milagrosa, which closed in 2013.

Before beginning the hunger strike Sunday, Ortiz, 44, participated in an 18-mile walk past all the parishes that have closed in Philadelphia in recent years due to the pastoral planning process along with fellow members of closed churches.

“They broke my spirit, now we will see if they can break my body,” he said that day, still full of energy.

Related link:‘We are the abandoned of the Church’

Ortiz’ last meal was a thermos of chicken and rice he ate outside the Cathedral Basilica before attending evening mass that Sunday, where he took communion. Since that wafer, he has not eaten and subsisted only off liquids, he said Wednesday, looking noticeably weaker.

“The church was our family,” said Ortiz, who met his wife Ramona there. They and their two daughters live just blocks away from the church, which has recently reopened as condominiums. “The odds of getting it back are nearly impossible.”

He plans to fast until Pope Francis holds mass in Philadelphia on Sunday — seven days — or until Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput agrees to meet him and members of other shuttered parishes.

Related link:Catholic reformers hope Pope’s visit sheds light on their causes

La Milagrosa, located at 1903 Spring Garden, was founded in 1912 and was the oldest Latino church in Philadelphia.

It technically belonged to the Vincentian Fathers, based in Spain, which announced it could not afford to pay for the church anymore in 1978.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia took over maintaining the building and provided Spanish-speaking priests, but when the Fathers chose to sell the building in 2012, the Philly Archdiocese could not afford to buy the church. Instead, they moved Spanish speaking services to the Cathedral Basilica.

But Ortiz believes speaking with Chaput would make a difference.

“If we establish a healing dialogue, that’s what we need. All that will take is for Archbishop Chaput to acknowledge me, to look me in the eyes,” he said. “The proposition I’d like to bring is, ‘Please let us work with you.'”

Related link:Many share in mural project for Pope Francis

Ortiz knows that his church might never reopen. He and his family now travel around the city for Mass at various churches that offer services in Spanish. But he does have a vision that there could be a plague in memory of La Milagrosa — or that the Archdiocese could help some of the other parishes that have closed around the city, like St. Joachim’s in the Northeast or St. Peter Claver’s in Center City, to merge into new parishes.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese said they were not aware of Ortiz’ hunger strike or desire to meet with the Archbishop.

On Thursday, Ortiz plans to move the location of his hunger strike from inside his home to the outside of Cathedral Basilica SS Peter and Paul — where he will remain for all day.

Ortiz that he and his family are doing this for elderly former parishioners of La Milagrosa — women like Inaida Fernandez, 83, a senior who lives across the street from the closed church and no longer attends Mass, but came to see Ortiz when he stopped there to pray on Sunday.

“I just think of Inaida. She doesn’t go out. How can she get tickets to see the Pope?” Ortiz said. “Hopefully this will bring some kind of change. It’s something that has to be done.”

More from our Sister Sites