Bouquet of Rosa

A s secularism ticks up, particularly among millennials, many Christian congregations in Connecticut have been shrinking. But for more than a decade, the Saint Rose of Lima Church, often shorthanded as “Rosa de Lima,” has seen a steady rise.

Built in the early 1900s, the church’s first congregation spoke with a brogue. Later, Italian was common under its rib-vaulted ceiling. Today, most services are conducted in Spanish.

Located in Fair Haven along a wide stretch of Blatchley Avenue, Rosa de Lima’s congregation is among the largest in New Haven. Every weekend, about 1,300 people come through its doors, representing 18 different Latin American and Caribbean nations including 15 Mexican states.

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In Rosa de Lima, Catholicism’s diversity becomes clear. Different countries, and often different towns and villages, revere and celebrate different patron saints. There are those who venerate Ecuador’s Virgen del Cisne (“Virgin of the Swans”), Mexico’s Virgen de Guadalupe (“Our Lady of Guadalupe”) or Peru’s Señor de los Milagros (“Lord of Miracles”)—the latter not a saint, but rather a 17th-century painting that has its own holiday and feast. Parishioners are allowed to organize feasts or days for any such objects of reverence, as they or their families once did in their home countries. Not surprisingly, Rosa de Lima’s church calendar is many-splendored.

The man at the head of this accommodating and mostly Hispanic church is Reverend James Manship. A self-proclaimed gringo—“white guy,” as he puts it—Manship has presided over Rosa de Lima for 11 years. He still speaks about his leadership with a healthy degree of self-awareness, which often translates into humility. “I’m the foreigner here. They’re the ones that welcome me into their home.”

And like many conscientious visitors try to do, Manship has been adapting to the customs of his hosts. “I have often said that I’ve become more and more accustomed to spicy food.” Now, he says, “food without the picante lacks a certain flavor.” Like spice into food, Manship says, “our faith mixed into our life … allows us to take a very profound and deep, savoring taste of the mystery of God unfolding before us.”

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Although Manship spends much of his day speaking in Spanish, it’s still his second language, and during sermons it comes out with a noticeably rigid American English lilt. But the congregation doesn’t seem to mind. On Palm Sunday, people stood shoulder-to-shoulder and overflowed into the choir loft, crowding the organ. Manship seemed to easily command their attention and trust.

That trust has been forged in part through shared struggle. Manship and lay leader Angel Fernandez-Chavero were integral to sparking the 2008 Department of Justice investigation into police profiling of Hispanic residents of East Haven. In 2007, complaints of harsh, arbitrary and sometimes violent treatment by police bubbled up through the congregation. When Manship was himself arrested in 2008 while trying to document an instance of harassment, the media took notice. Not long after, so did federal authorities.

The Department of Justice launched a two-year investigation of the East Haven police department that found evidence of “biased policing, unconstitutional searches and seizures and the use of excessive force.” In early 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Sgt. John Miller along with three of his subordinates. Police chief Leonard Gallo resigned shortly thereafter.

Before and during all of that, the church was also focused on increasing the access of its parishioners to higher education. In 2006, Rosa de Lima established the “St. Rose Education Task Force,” through which it encouraged children of undocumented immigrants to work towards and apply to college. Part of its work involved approaching colleges throughout southern New England and showing them that—contrary to what some had assumed—it isn’t illegal to accept these students or consider them for private scholarships. The program helped send more than 20 of its young congregants to college.

A more recent victory for the church was the passage of a 2013 law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license on the basis that it provides safe training, economic incentives for insurance companies and allowed these individuals to be more productive members of society. While the organization directly behind the political campaign was Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut, Manship—one of that organization’s co-chairmen—was a driving force behind the push and many of his congregation directly benefited from the law.

“What we do in our parish community flows out of our care and our feeling for one another,” Manship says. “If one part is hurting, all of us hurt. That sense of feeling and mercy moves us into action.”

Saint Rose of Lima Church
115 Blatchley Ave, New Haven (map)
Sunday Services: 9am, 11am, 6pm
(203) 865-6149…

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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