1111On Oct. 2, Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams pledged that 27 vacant houses on Lucius and Auburndale avenues and Southern Boulevard, near the church, will be razed by year’s end. He calls the project “Operation Redemption.”
Vindicator reporter Ashley Luthern interviewed Father Maturi about problems facing his parish and the city, and his strategy to combat them.
Q: You came to Youngstown in November. What’s your background?
A: I came in the fall, and I was installed as pastor in November. ...I’ve been a priest now for 16 years, and most of those years have been in campus ministry. ...I’m from Alexandria, Va. right outside [Washington] D.C.
Q: Did you know a lot about the area before you came here?
A: Not a lot. This is my first assignment in Ohio, actually my first assignment west of the Allegheny Mountains. All of my priesthood has been on the East Coast, mostly in cities.
Q: The congregation has been through so much this year.
A: Yes, we’ve had two murders in less than a year. Angeline Fimognari in January and then, of course, Tom Repchic.
Q: How has the congregation been reacting to those crimes?
A: The congregation is frustrated and upset. There’s some fear, but mostly they’re fiercely loyal and resolute that they are going to continue to come here. Criminals will not keep them from coming to this place. They love St. Dominic’s, and a criminal won’t keep them from the place they love and keep them from where they want to worship. That’s the essence of a free society. The essence of free society has two aspects: freedom to conduct commerce and freedom to worship. If you can’t conduct commerce and if you can’t worship, you’re not a free society. And right now, Youngstown is in jeopardy of losing those freedoms because of this violence.
Q: What do you see as your role?
A: St. Dominic’s is somewhat of an anchor in the neighborhood. St. Dominic’s and the Dominican fathers, we’ve been here since 1923 and we will be here for a long time to come. ...Part of my role is leadership, not only among the parish community but in the neighborhood and even in the wider community. ...As a pastor, as a leader, it’s my job to give hope to people. To help to diminish anger. My intention is not to foment anger. I’m trying to alleviate the anger that naturally rises when people feel helpless against crime and violence. I’m trying to give them hope that things will change. One of my advantages is I’m a new face; I have a new approach. I can look at things with fresh eyes. Mayor [Jay] Williams has mentioned this in his project Operation Redemption. ...Mayor Williams has been very good to us, both in the crisis of the earlier murder and then this crisis. [City councilwoman] Janet Tarpley [D-6th] has been very good to us. The police have been excellent. I was really impressed that as part of Operation Redemption, Mayor Williams mentioned my name and the 20 addresses I gave him and promised that they would be demolished by Dec. 31. I will try to hold his feet to the fire on that, but he seems to be an honest man, a man of his word. I’ve gained confidence in him.
Q: You’ve said those vacant homes are the anchors for crime?
A: These are dilapidated nuisance houses that are irreparable. They will never be repaired; they are boarded up and used now as drug houses, places for criminals to hide, gangs to meet, prostitution. Not only is it a source of crime and hiding out after committing a crime, but it’s also a source of depression and despair for the good people in the neighborhood who want to stay and revitalize the neighborhood. Tearing down these houses has the effect of directly curtailing crime. It’s not the whole answer, but it’s an important part of the answer. It will make a significant impact. ...This is beyond St. Dominic’s and beyond Youngstown, and that’s why I’ve been reaching out to the state government, the attorney general, to [U.S. Rep.] Tim Ryan. This is not a critique of the city, of the mayor, or the police force. It’s a problem that is outside of their competence.
...The way you revitalize the neighborhood is you have to bring in people and you have to bring in commerce. But people and commerce will only come in if they have a reason. So we need to give them a reason.
Our school is an active school once again. It’s a charter school that will bring people and commerce. We’re raising money to build a $1.2 million parish center.
...We can give them reasons to come in.
...This is not just Father Maturi, the Lone Ranger. This is trying to organize everyone together. We’re working with ACTION, Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, Lien Forward Ohio — and by the way, I’m trying to encourage the county commissioners to set up that land bank. ...I’m working with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation and prominent members of the society trying to cobble together a broad contingent of society.
Q: Do you think it helps that as a priest you’re not politically related to anything?
A: I’m a neutral figure, not trying to push any political agenda. I just want my parishioners to be able to come here and worship without fear of violent crime.
But I realize that as the neighborhood goes, so goes the church. So I need to work in the neighborhood. I realize that as the city goes, so goes the neighborhood. So I have to broaden it out to make it citywide. It’s a problem that the city itself cannot handle. So I’m reaching out to the state.
Q: Is there going to be a summit with state leaders and if so, what will happen there?
A: The attorney general will have a safety summit here at St. Dominic’s on Oct. 27. It’s going to be small meeting where local, state and federal elected officials and enforcement officials come together ...We’ll have a press release afterwards. The fundamental principles for that meeting: there has to be a practical, reasonable, legal result that comes from it that can be implemented immediately. This is not long-term strategy. We have to leave that meeting with actionable results, immediate actionable results.
Q: What are you suggestions?
A: I want the governor to detach [Ohio] State [Highway Patrol] troopers to Youngstown. There are over 80 state trooper barracks throughout the state. He could take one from each post. They can take over traffic enforcement so they can do targeted, saturated enforcement. That produces results. ... I want the attorney general to assign BCI (Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification) to take over criminal investigation from the YPD to free up more YPD patrols. ...I would like Sheriff [Randall] Wellington to reactivate a violent crime unit and have some kind of witness- protection program. I’d like Tim Ryan to get us $3 million from the federal government to hire and train YPD. In the meantime, I’ll be working to revitalize the neighborhood, organizing grass-roots with MVOC and ACTION with YSU. We’ll be building up the tax base, so once we build that up then YPD can start taking over more and more of this. These are just temporary solutions.