By Gabrielle Fellows
Father Gregory Maturi, “the crime fighting priest” who has been the leader of St. Dominic Parish since November 2009, makes his final rounds in Youngstown as he prepares to return to the Dominican Order on the East Coast.
Maturi lead his final mass last Monday at the church that was home to “many joys and many sorrows, with many more good days than there were bad days.” It is customary for Dominican Priors — including Maturi — to hold temporary positions in a variety of churches.
The six years Maturi lead the church began with heartbreaking loss. In January 2010, Angeline Fimognari was shot and killed in the parking lot of St. Dominic’s. September of the same year, parishioners Thomas and Jacqueline Repchic were shot a few blocks from their South Side home. Jacqueline lost her right leg in the drive-by shooting and Thomas lost his life.
The murders of the two church members devastated the parish. The incidents triggered conviction in Maturi, and he said he immediately knew he had to take action to prevent similar actions from happening again.
“Operation Redemption” is St. Dominic’s response to the tragedies. The organization is a collaboration between the church and state and local officials that attempts to rehabilitate and revitalize the South Side. Vacant homes and properties were purchased by the church and turned into green spaces. Homes were demolished, trash was removed and the spaces turned into areas where —instead of being breeding grounds for drug activity and violence — families could safely gather.
Victoria Allen is Maturi’s “partner in crime” in creating a better South Side. In addition to removing the abandoned houses, St. Dominic’s partners with other local churches and organizations to lead the Valley’s youth away from life decisions that could lead them to lives of crime.
As urban blight is often seen as a contributing factor to rises in criminal activity, Allen believes the projects go hand in hand.
“Using donations and working with a contracting company, Maturi was able to work under the radar so that we could avoid the red tape that the city sometimes has to go through. Those houses were beyond repair. They haven’t had water or electricity for years. I’d rather see an empty green lot than a house with all the windows broken out, trash everywhere,” Allen said. “Father has maintained the lots so that the grass is never high and so that there isn’t trash. It went from looking like a bad area to a more rural area that’s actually used. The kids get to use the green space for a playing area and the churches use the space for the annual Easter egg hunt now. We try to keep the kids of downtown off of the streets by showing them how much fun they can have without getting involved in bad activities and getting rid of the areas that feed them.”
A group of over 20 houses were torn down as a part of “Operation Redemption.” Maturi explained that by demolishing the boarded up houses and nurturing the most at-risk children, the church and its partners filled a void that had long been open.
“What we have begun here — cleaning up the neighborhood and reaching out to kids and family, building up the community and giving the young people good experiences and helping them make good friends and love law enforcement — we fill a void that hasn’t been filled,” Maturi said. “We don’t have a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, although those are very important. We aren’t trying to duplicate efforts that are already underway. We are trying to fill a void that hasn’t been touched yet in the South Side, or that is, but needs more efforts. We want to reach out to young kids, ages four to 14, and their families and give them hope that this place can be good.”
Cherry Robinson also gives her time to assist with the program, especially when her daughter, Victoria Allen, is at work. Robinson said she became involved with the organization when her daughter requested her help with activities. Robinson accepted, and since then she said that the program has grown in size.
“Every time we do something with the kids, it forges the opportunity to see the impact we’ve been making on the community. Every event, someone says something that makes you glad that you’ve given your time to help them,” Robinson said. “Knowing that we gave kids the opportunity to do something that they have never done through the organization is an empowering feeling. They can have fun without being in danger.”
While Maturi’s time with St. Dominic’s has come to an end, he believes that through this organization “God’s work will continue to get done, with or without” him to lead it.
“My job as a Catholic priest is to give hope. I’m not in the business to solve people’s problems. People are generally good and generally resourceful, but they need hope. When we started this project years ago, we were battling naysayers who were saying, ‘Why are you wasting your time and resources? This is the South Side, this is bad and will always be that way.’ But I knew with prayer and with the help of the church and the community, things could be different here,” Maturi said. “And look how it has turned out. Everything we have done here is the Lord’s work; we are just facilitating it. The Dominicans is very explicit, my six years is up and now I must resign. That’s how it works. Someone else will come here after me and hopefully will pick up the ball and run with it and continue the work we’ve done here. I’ll be sad to leave all the friends I’ve made and all the good people I’ve met, but the Lord with take care of them, as he always does.”