2008.041.009 Oral History Interview with Father Raymond Nobiletti
Father Raymond Nobiletti has served as Pastor of the Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan’s Chinatown since 1991 and speaks Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese. Previously, he spent 15 years as a missionary priest in Hong Kong, where he had the opportunity to learn the language and be with the people on many levels through their problems and difficulties. Recently celebrating its 175th anniversary, Transfiguration, over the years, has welcomed waves of new immigrants. “We are known as The Church of Immigrants. Whoever comes through the door gets served,” he says. Father Nobiletti was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in the Bronx and Long Island. After high school, he decided to join the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, Maryknoll, and was ordained a Maryknoll missionary priest in 1969. Nobiletti felt very fortunate to be assigned to Hong Kong, which was his first choice. Initially assigned to Transfiguration in Chinatown only temporarily, Nobiletti found the pastor work so meaningful and interesting that he decided to stay. He notes that the Transfiguration parishship has been able to adapt to different languages and waves of immigrants, from the Dutch speaking to English speaking to Italian speaking to the Chinese speaking of various dialects. In the early 1990s, the ship, the Golden Venture, ran aground carrying 110 undocumented Chinese, mainly from Fujian Province. The church received a call from the police department because they did not have anyone who understood Fujianese. Six of the young people who were too young to go to prison were brought to the church, where Nobiletti got to know them better. Over the years, increasing numbers of Mandarin-speaking Fujianese immigrants have come to Chinatown and have come to make up the majority of his parishioners. As a gua lo or foreign ghost who does not belong to any of the language speaking groups but knows something of Chinese language and culture, Nobelietti feels that he is able to welcome everyone.


In 1991, I was asked by Cardinal XXXX to go down to a transfiguration church for a few months really, and I found that the pastor work there was so interesting, so exciting and so meaningful that I'm there to this day.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in the Bronx and Long Island and after high school I decided I wanted to enter the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, Maryknoll, and I went to the seminary and was ordained a Maryknoll priest, a missionary priest in 1969. I was really very fortunate because in fact, I was assigned to Hong Kong, whereas out of the 20 of my classmates, only two of us got our first choice and so I really felt very fortunate to go there. I was fascinated by China, by the Chinese people, by the country and by its history. And so I was delighted to have the opportunity to learn a very difficult language and was able to be with the people, and to be with the people on many levels; with their difficulties, their problems, many of them were poor, so perhaps my own background, as an Italian-American, very family oriented being with people I felt very comfortable also in the Chinese situation.

Coming to Transfiguration in Chinatown, this has helped me very great deal. It's a wonderful place to be because it's always changing, and transfiguration church is the church of immigrants. I think that the fact that Transfiguration Parish is able to adapt to different languages all of these years is perhaps due to the founder of the Transfiguration parishship, Father Felix Varela. Father Felix Varela was a philosopher and a scholar in Cuba, who was really, exiled, a refugee in New York City, who took care of the really poor, uneducated Irish immigrants who came into the city. So that was the beginning of, perhaps you can say, a multi-cultural pastoral situation for the Church of the Transfiguration.

In the early 90s, we know that there was a great influx of legal and illegal Chinese into the United States and the ship, the Golden Venture, came up on one of the beaches in Queens, on one Sunday morning. And I remember we got a telephone call from the police department, asking us if any people was fluent in a language that they could not handle, they could handle Mandarin, they could Cantonese but these people were speaking another language and they were speaking Fujianese because the people in this boat, about 110 immigrants were speaking the Fujianese language. And so they brought to the church about 6 of the young people on the boat, who were too young to go to prison. And so we got to know these 6 young men to the point that just a few years ago, I witnessed a marriage of one of them and whose child is going to be baptized next month.

As a parish then we were able to first to become familiar with the Fujianese and second to know, really, their culture, which is a little different from those in Hong Kong. And so, more and more Fujianese people have come into Chinatown over the years and now the majority of the people in the parish, instead of being speakers of Toishan or Cantonese language, are now Mandarin speaking Fujianese immigrants. But being the foreign ghost or the gua lo, as they say, I am able to say everyone is welcome and I'm able to get away with it because I don't belong to any of the language speaking group and we are able to welcome everyone as an American who happens to know something about the Chinese culture. And I think that Transfiguration Church, which has gone from Dutch speaking to English speaking to Italian speaking to Chinese speaking, is going through the different dialects of Chinese, with that, of course, the different cultures of Chinese, we are able to be open to all people, the church of immigrants, unless we do welcome all people, we will really, be irrelevant.

*Talking in Cantonese* My name is Father Felix Nobiletti from Transfiguration Church on Mott St.

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