Richard, Jose Bello and the Centro’s board of directors gather with Fr. Mario Serrano, SJ, recipient of the 2nd annual "Fr. Jeff Chojnacki, S.J. Faith and Justice Award."
Founding Executive Director Leaving Centro Altagracia de Fe y Justicia with Hope and Gratitude

July 7, 2016 - After 11 years of leading Centro Altagracia de Fe y Justicia, Richard Espinal is moving on as executive director of the Jesuit social ministry that is devoted to helping northern Manhattan community members put their faith into action.

The Centro was created in 2005 by then New York Province Provincial Fr. Jeff Chojnacki, SJ, as a way for the Jesuits to be of greater service to the Dominican community in Washington Heights. “For many Washington Heights residents, Centro Altagracia is closely identified with the person of Richard Espinal, and for good reason,” reflected Fr. Ralph Rivera, SJ, chair of the Centro’s board of directors. “Richard, along with two of our board members, was there from the beginning of the Centro’s founding.” 

Richard looks on with daughter Noelli as then former New York Provincial and Centro founder Fr. Jeff Chojnacki, SJ, offers an opening prayer at the Centro’s 2012 International Women’s Day celebration.
In 2005, Richard was hired as the Centro’s only staff person, working in a basement office in the New York Province’s administrative offices on Manhatthan’s Upper East Side. Richard helped secure office space for the Centro from one of their collaborating parishes in the heart of Washington Heights. The offices at St. Rose of Lima on 164th Street in Manhattan remain one of Richard’s many lasting legacies that will continue to shape the work of the Centro. Far more important than securing the Centro’s current physical location, community residents, nonprofit partners, elected officials and Catholic pastors and leaders in northern Manhattan will remember Richard’s decade-plus tenure at the Centro for the innovative faith-justice engagement and educational programs and rich array of direct service and referral services that have supported community members. “The Centro couldn’t have found a better leader,” noted the Honorable Judge Rita Mella, one of the Centro’s founders and current vice president of the board of directors. “His faith, his commitment to social justice, his integrity and dedication have been the guiding principles in his job as executive director; it has made the Centro what it is today.” 

Richard poses with Centro staff and high school students participating in the Centro’s GLU service-learning program.
Today, with the contributions of four full-time staff persons and a year-long Jesuit Volunteer Corps member, the Centro provides outreach, formation, direct assistance, and spiritual and leadership development to the low-income and predominantly immigrant population of northern Manhattan. Under the guidance of Tiffany Lee, director of social justice programs, the Centro is organizing parish leaders into social ministries teams to address pressing concerns in their community, lifting up the voices of neighborhood residents in the rezoning process, and operating justice-oriented nutrition education, family faith formation and service-learning programs.

The Centro is also fortunate to have Zach Presutti, SJ, a Jesuit in formation, as part of their team. Presutti has developed an Ignatian-spirituality program that a team of collaborators are sharing with inmates in five New York City-area jails and prisons, as well as an educational work skills training program for formerly incarcerated individuals returning to northern Manhattan. Merelis Ortiz oversees health care community outreach and neighborhood clean-up programs across northern Manhattan and the Bronx. Richard refers to the Centro as “the small organization with a big heart,” expressing pride in the community issues they have addressed, the respect they have earned from a wide array of community stakeholders, and their ability to leverage relationships to benefit the community. “We have always journeyed, confident that God walks with us,” Richard said.

Jesuit Superior General Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, SJ, former New York Provincial Fr. David Ciancimino, SJ, and Richard Espinal gather at a reception hosted by Fordham University.

This summer, the Centro will also bid farewell to Jose Bello, another founding member of their board of directors. Judge Mella was part of the initial discussions with Jose Bello and other consultants to the province that resulted in the creation of the Centro. She recalled the important role that Bello’s thoughts and observations played in creating the Centro. “Jose’s clear vision guided us and helped us understand that serving the Dominican immigrant community in upper Manhattan should be a priority for the Centro," said Judge Mella. "His long-standing contributions and insights will continue to guide the work of the Centro."

As he reflects on the future of the Centro, Fr. Rivera believes the organization is on the cusp of an exciting period. “The Centro has built up a good reputation in the Heights thanks to the commitment of Richard and the board of directors. Now it is a matter of carefully assessing our impact thus far, remaining committed to our mission and serving the marginalized.”

Richard will conclude his tenure as executive director on July 15, after which he will begin a position with the Archdiocese of New York and Catholic Charities, remaining connected to the Jesuits during his graduate studies at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education. While the Centro’s board of directors engages in a search process for the next executive director, Tiffany Lee will serve as interim executive director. For more information on the job description, click here.

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