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East Harlem Mourns Carmen Villegas, Activist Who Fought to Save Church

By Jeff Mays | December 11, 2012 9:30am | Updated on December 11, 2012 1:48pm

EAST HARLEM — It was only right that Carmen Villegas' friends and family celebrated her life Monday in front of Our Lady Queen of Angels, a Catholic church on East 113th between Second and Third Avenues that has been closed since 2007.

Villegas, a well-known community advocate and devoted Catholic, fought the diocese' plan to close the church by occupying the sanctuary for 37 hours in 2007. The protest ended when police rushed in and arrested Villegas, as well as several others and shuttered the church earlier than planned.

But Villegas never stopped fighting to see her beloved church reopened. On most Sundays, when she wasn't too weak from her cancer treatments, Villegas joined other parishioners for a service outside of the locked church doors.

"She was steadfast," said Gladys Nestre-Rivera, one of the parishioners who were arrested in 2007. "It was our goal to save the church and we weren't going to give up. We never did."

Villegas, 58, lost her battle with cancer on Dec. 5. More than 100 people gathered outside of the church Monday to say goodbye to a woman whom they said fought for East Harlem every day of her life.

Whether it was battling the diocese to save her church, fighting against gentrification and displacement or trying to eliminate HIV and AIDS, Villegas could be found on the front lines of the issues affecting East Harlem.

"it just wasn't in church but outside of church where she fought," said family friend Nancy Perez. "She was about helping the community with all of its needs."

Some members of the community wanted the diocese to open the doors of the church for Villegas' memorial. They say the diocese once again turned them away.

Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for  the Archdiocese of New York, said they did not receive a request to open the church until Monday.

"We had heard that Carmen has passed away last week, and she was certainly remembered in our prayers for the repose of her soul, as well as for the consolation of her family and loved ones, especially today as her funeral Mass was being celebrated at another parish," Zwilling wrote in an e-mail.

"However, because the parish of Our Lady Queen of Angels has been closed for more than (five) years....it was not possible for it to be used."

As they do on Sunday, Villegas' friends gathered, undeterred, outside of the church, her white coffin protected from the constant drizzle by a canopy.

"She had that combination of being actively religious and active in the community. You could say she came from the liberation theology tradition," said friend William Gerena-Rochet.

During an emotional 90-minute memorial, mourners draped Villegas' casket with the Puerto Rican flag. They sang la bandera bonita, or the beautiful flag, while wiping away tears. They held yellow roses and touched her casket as they prayed over it in Spanish.

They recalled her favorite expressions and her annual Three Kings Day party where she stuffed more than 100 people into her one bedroom apartment. The party was so popular that people had to come in waves.

East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito recalled how Villegas called her while barricaded inside the church during the 2007 effort to prevent it from closing. The front doors had been locked but Villegas slipped her in through a side entrance that the diocese was unaware of.

"Unfortunately, the church did not open its doors but we are here to make sure she is not forgotten," said Mark-Viverito who wiped tears from her face during the memorial.

"Carmen is a person you meet once in a generation," said Mark-Viverito.

Assemblymen Robert Rodriguez said visiting Villegas was a required stop when he decided to step into public life because her "roots were deep" in the community.

"You had to talk to Carmen because she knew how to make the community great," said Rodriguez.

Villegas was born in New York City but raised in Puerto Rico. She studied liturgy and the Scriptures in Caracas, Venezuela before obtaining a bachelor's degree in health from the City University of New York and a master's degree in communications from the New York Institute of Technology.

During her career, Villegas worked as an adjunct professor at Touro College as well as coordinated the HIV and infectious disease program at Lincoln Hospital's Medical and Mental Health Center. She was a long-time member of Community Board 11,  and part of the national planning committee of the National Catholic Conference.

Villegas is survived by three sisters and a brother.

Niece Melanie Martinez, 18, a college student, said her aunt always pushed her to do the right thing, but for herself.

"She was a strong woman. I'm not sad she's gone because she's not. She's in my heart. I'm not sad because she's not suffering anymore," Martinez said.

Eduardo Padro, a member of the parish for 38 years and a New York State Supreme Court Justice. gave a reprise of the eulogy he gave at Villegas' service.

He used his law dictionary to find words to describe his friend such as revolutionary, Catholic, intellectual and organizer. He imagined Villegas jokingly telling him to get a plain dictionary and to pick out words like brilliant, sister, aunt, sexy and happy.

"Why use all those words. All you needed to say was that I followed Jesus' example," Padro imagined Villegas saying.

As the service ended, those gathered sang hymns and waited as the casket was loaded into the hearse.

"Adios Carmen," they yelled while hugging one another.

Villegas' niece Laura Satterfield, said she didn't know how loved her aunt was until the service.

"I didn't realize until today how many lives she had touched," said Satterfield. "We are so honored to have shared our very special gift with so many people."