38 years ago today, the head of the Catholic Church blessed a vacant lot on Morris Avenue. Pope John Paul II was far from the only public figure to visit The Bronx in the late seventies. Politicians including Presidents Carter and Reagan visited the abandoned tenements of Charlotte Street, the symbol for the destruction of the South Bronx.
Why did the Pope visit the neighborhood of Melrose instead? The answer runs through the Italian island of Ponza and East 151st Street to a church called Our Lady of Pity. A church established by immigrants from Ponza in 1908, Our Lady of Pity was the center of an Italian neighborhood and according to New York Times article once had a parish of 4,000 families. As the neighborhood became increasingly Puerto Rican, the churches membership decreased. Local clergy from several churches pushed for new area housing to revitalize the area.
The Pope spoke to the local crowd, some hanging on fire escapes, in Spanish, English, and Italian went to dinner at Cardinal Hayes HS and then continued on to an audience of 80,000 at Yankee Stadium. Ultimately Christopher Courts would be completed in 1982 and this sign was erected two decades later.