Pope's visit to New York school sparks hope for shuttered parish

By Barbara Goldberg and Philip Pullella

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Cheers rang out in the streets of Harlem on Friday, as crowds listening remotely to Pope Francis on his visit to a mostly Latino and black school heard him share Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's famous words about fighting for your beliefs.

Third- and fourth-grade schoolchildren met with the pope at Our Lady Queen of Angels School, which serves an economically struggling and mostly immigrant community, and showed their environmentally themed projects to the Argentine pontiff whose mission is helping immigrants and the poor.

In a tender moment, 8-year-old Kayla Osborne tried to show him how to use a smart board and, when he failed three times, took his hand and helped him swipe it.

Crowds packed sidewalks near the school, which the pope has held up as an example of the future of the Catholic Church. His visit sparked hope that a nearby shuttered parish might also have a future.

Among the throng were members of the closed parish who have gathered on the sidewalk every Sunday since the church was closed in 2007 and held their own prayer services outside, even in rain or snow.

They hung 8-foot (2.5-meter) banners on police barricades along the pope's route, urging him to unlock the parish doors. Patty Rodriguez, who was among six women arrested for occupying the church in an effort to block the shutdown, listened closely as Eduardo Padro, a New York state judge who joins the pavement prayer sessions, relayed a cell phone live stream of the pope's address inside the school.

“He’s talking about Dr. Martin Luther King. ‘It’s beautiful to have dreams. It’s beautiful to fight for those dreams.’ That’s what we’re doing right here,” Padro said.

The crowd around him burst into cheers, waving in the air posters in Spanish and in English with the same message as the banners: "Welcome to East Harlem Pope Francis. The parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Angels continue on the sidewalk. Please open our church.”

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The church's shutdown in 2007 reflects a national trend of parish closures in the United States caused by low attendance, a shortage of priests and financial troubles in the wake of a scandal of clergy sexual abuse of churchgoers.

His selection of the school as a stop on his six-day visit to the United States has convinced them they have already captured his heart, Rodriguez said.

"We feel the Archdiocese of New York has been very brash with us, where this pope carries kindness and tenderness," said Rodriguez, 51, who works in publishing.

"Because he is so unpredictable and because he's for the people, there is even greater hope," Rodriguez said.

As the papal motorcade drove past the whistling, clapping crowd, Padro gave a thumbs up as he glimpsed Pope Francis and said he was more convinced than ever that the pontiff's visit to East Harlem could have a "ripple effect" of unlocking the church.

"I got a charge. It was wonderful," Padro said. "We're still praying for that miracle."

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Philip Pullella; Editing by Grant McCool and Lisa Shumaker)