Providing Theology, News and Comfort to New York Immigrants

NEW YORK — Ada Ricci is a widow whose poor health confines her to her New York home.

But when asked about Radio Maria, the Italian native and retired professor who has lived in the United States for most of her life takes on the air of a younger and more vibrant woman.

“It helps me tremendously,” Ricci said, brimming with enthusiasm. “Radio Maria gives me so much. It is a blessing from God.”

In a city that is often thought of as stressful and impersonal, Radio Maria has been a comfort and an inspiration to many Catholics in the New York area, particularly immigrants. Most of the programming is in Italian and Spanish.

Florinda Iannace, an Italian professor at New York's Fordham University, began doing a weekly radio program for the faithful on local stations in 1982. Ten years later, a priest who was working with Italian immigrants in New York, Scalabrini Father Walter Tonelotto, asked her what she thought about bringing Radio Maria to New York. It had started in Italy in 1983.

Iannace said Yes, and Father Tonelotto proceeded to borrow money and rent a station in downtown Manhattan.

All programs were produced locally at first, until the New York station merged with Italy's Radio Maria in 1994.

Then, about four years ago, Father Herman Acosta, who had started a Spanish version of Radio Maria in Colombia in 1997, brought it to New York. It shares space with New York's Italian Radio Maria, now housed in the New York borough of Queens.

They are part of a loose-knit, growing family of Radio Maria stations whose numbers are approaching 50 worldwide. Like the original in Italy, they share a mission and Marian charism. In North America, there are Radio Maria stations in Houston; Alexandria, La.; Toronto; and Guadalajara, Mexico.

The New York entities are on different channels and operate on a sub-carrier rather than AM or FM, which is too expensive. That means listeners need to purchase a special $30 radio unit through the station.

The New York Italian station originally broadcast only local programs but eventually joined forces with Radio Maria in Italy. Today, 90% of the programming comes from Italy.

The station regularly airs interviews with the best and brightest minds in Rome and airs Pope John Paul II's blessings, audiences and homilies.

“Radio Maria broadcasts the best catechism possible from the best theologians,” said Iannace, who serves as president of the station. She cited Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household.

The station also broadcasts daily Mass and an hour of spirituality with the rosary and programs containing advice from doctors and psychologists. Other programs focus on literature with spiritual themes or live interviews with local Italians about their faith.

Operation costs run some $20,000 a month, and Radio Maria has depended on donations, an annual fund-raising dinner and Radio Maria Italy. Two years ago, the station decided to launch a “Mariathona” — an idea borrowed from New York's Spanish-language Radio Maria channel. The Mariathona consisted of local programming for three days. Within the first three hours, $30,000 had been pledged. In three days, the station raised $120,000.

“When I told my nephew how we had done, he said we would only see about 40% of that money,” Iannace said. “But the following week, we had $100,000 in the bank.”

After this, Italy's Radio Maria thought the station was ready to stand on its own.

In the beginning, Radio Maria gave out hundreds of free radios in order to publicize itself. Fans learn about the channel through word of mouth.

“We have 6,000 people who donate money regularly to us. We believe we have 50,000 families who listen to us,” Iannace said. People can also listen to the station via the Internet and dish networks.

For the Italian-American community in New York, the Church has been able to come into homes in a personal way.

“When I listen to these programs, I feel like I'm in Italy,” said Concetta Ursida, coordinator for Radio Maria. “The message these people have is so clear, so impeccable, so strong, so vivid.”

New Immigrants

But the long-established Italian community in New York is not likely to grow with any significant immigration from Italy, which has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

Immigrant and second-generation Hispanics in New York, however, provide a major audience for Spanish-language Radio Maria. About 25% of the channel's programming is local, with the rest coming from Latin America, notably Colombia. To date, there are Radio Maria stations in 20 Latin American countries.

The unity of language, culture and faith is apparent every Saturday when the Radio Maria stations in Latin America link up for the rosary. Each mystery is said by station personnel in different countries.

Programs from Colombia include Latin American news, daily Mass, the Angelus, Liturgy of the Hours, rosary with the Pope, the Divine Mercy chaplet and theology classes. Every Friday there is a round-table discussion with the Latin America stations on pastoral problems in their countries.

Local programming in New York includes Bible classes, programs for alcoholics and families, instructions on prayer and a program on the problems of immigrants in the New York area.

Listeners have called in to tell the station they had lived with depression for years until they began to listen to Radio Maria. “The station taught them to pray and they have become happy. It has changed their lives,” said Father Patricio Gallego, spiritual director for New York City's Amigos de Radio Maria.

“Radio Maria is a gift from Mary,” he said. “We are convinced of this.”

English Programming

Radio Maria has long been interested in doing English programs. The station's ideal would be to purchase another station that would transmit on normal frequencies — such that anyone could listen.

“However, the cost of purchasing a station in New York is prohibitive,” said Father Peter Pilsner, an archdiocesan priest who helps the station. “We are talking upwards of $40 million.” Another plan is to rent time on local stations for a few hours a week.

“In New York, there is a great thirst for spirituality,” said Scalabrini Father Joseph Fugolo, director of Radio Maria New York. “We want to meet the needs of the whole person in English. We can start in a limited way and see if we can raise the necessary funds.”

“I hope the English programming will take off,” Ursida said. “My generation is the last that really speaks Italian. But the next generation will need this more than we do.”

Sabrina Ferrisi writes from Jersey City, New Jersey.