On Monday, August 4th 2014, the Pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Church, Vicar of the Northwest Bronx, and longtime Bronx housing and community activist, Msgr. John Jenik was ordained as an Auxiliary Bishop of New York in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral by Timothy Cardinal Dolan.
After his ordination, Bishop Jenik addressed the large St. Patrick’s Cathedral crowd, which included many parishioners from Our Lady of Refuge and people who have worked side by side with him to improve housing and maintain safe neighborhoods in the Bronx: “The Pope did something singular when he selected three auxiliary Bishops from New York. He named three pastors who have spent their entire priesthood in the parishes, in the so-called trenches. It’s an honor for each of us, but it’s really an honor for all the priests of New York.” Bishop Jenik went on to thank the many priests and religious for their commitment to the borough.
Bishop Jenik has certainly spent his time in the Bronx trenches. When Father Jenik arrived in Our Lady of Refuge Parish in 1978, he had already served 8 years in St. Jerome’s and St. Thomas Aquinas parishes. The Bronx was a very different place in the ‘70’s. Bronx building abandonment was unprecedented and both of those parishes had been directly impacted. Fr. Jenik had worked with neighborhood and church leaders in those areas to devise responses to this new phenomenon. This work resulted in the creation of Mid-Bronx Desperadoes and the launch of community-based efforts to develop solutions to problems that had left city planners dumbfounded and considering “planned shrinkage” (withdrawal of services from certain neighborhoods to consolidate services in other neighborhoods that were deemed salvageable) as an acceptable strategy.
In 1978, Our Lady of Refuge parish housed the Fordham Bedford Community Coalition, one of the affiliate groups of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. The 4 years of Coalition organizing work had stalled the abandonment that had affected so many Bronx neighborhoods. Active tenant organizing produced significant results - court actions, rent strikes and in some cases, tenant associations taking control of their building through the appointment of a 7A administrator, or the City’s Tenant Interim Lease Program (TIL). Community organizing had created a strong base of neighborhood leaders determined to preserve and improve the Fordham Bedford community. The arrival of Father Jenik with his dedication and knowledge of organizing and community development efforts in his previous parishes helped inform the work of the Fordham Bedford organization. The roots of the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation (FBHC) can be traced to the interaction of Fr. Jenik and Coalition tenant leaders like Fran Sullivan, who managed her own building and several others as a 7A administrator. They started organizing to keep buildings from going abandoned and scraping together money to maintain services. Fr. Jenik’s commitment was hands-on and pragmatic; he called on the Holy Name Society to take up a special collection to help fund the $100 necessary to acquire a building on the verge of abandonment from its owner, and thanked a local neighborhood leader who paid the Con Ed bill to keep the gas on in the building. That working group made the decision to create Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation and named Fr. Jenik as President and John Reilly its Executive Director. Under their continued leadership and hard work, FBHC has grown to be recognized as one of the most successful community management and development organizations in the country and has created decent, affordable housing for nearly 3,500 Bronx families.
Fr. Jenik was named Pastor of Our Lady of Refuge in 1985. By that time Fr. Jenik had expanded his work in the neighborhood from the community housing and development work of the housing corporation to street organizing to stop the spread of drugs in the neighborhood. This work has continued through today. The parish’s street demonstrations and marches were inspirations for other communities’ public demonstrations to call attention to the issue.
In his transition from Pastor to Bishop, John Jenik’s commitment to our neighborhoods remains clear. A newly ordained bishop can design a personal coat of arms that reflect their ministry as a priest of the Archdiocese and now as a Bishop. The words on Bishop Jenik’s coat of arms are perfectly fitting for his lifetime of work in the Bronx and in the Fordham Bedford neighborhood: “DEFEND THE POOR AND NEEDY.” On more than one occasion, people who have worked with him have said that you want him on your side in a fight. For so many years now, the people and neighborhoods of the Bronx have had the advantage of having him on their side - shielding them from speculators, insensitive bureaucrats and planners, drug dealers, or anybody that fails to see the human impact of their actions while helping to give voice to those that are all too often overlooked.
Bishop Jenik continues to serve as an inspiration for many in the Bronx and this well-deserved recognition gives hope to the many efforts to answer the call to “DEFEND THE POOR AND NEEDY.”