For those who know even a little bit about youth gangs from the 1950s, if asked to name some gangs, they might throw out “Bishops” and “Chaplains.” These two groups were arch enemies and the quintessential Hatfield/McCoy’s of New York City youth gangs. Time and again their name comes up in my research. But there were others.
Enter the Hellburners and Phantom Lords from Williamsburg. So often in my research I encounter both these gangs who hated each other with a passion, constantly fighting and yes, killing each other. And it wasn’t just these gangs that made Williamsburg such a dangerous neighborhood. In addition to the Burners and Lords, there were the Jackson Jents, El Quintos, Jesters, Mighty Midgets and other smaller gangs that oozed between the cracks, taking up smaller turfs.
Living in the middle of Hellburner and Phantom Lord turf was hazardous to one’s health. For those who were not in either gang, they had to dodge war parties from both sides. Those who were not in gangs were called coolies. Coolies were supposed to announce themselves and it was generally understood they were not to be bothered. One day, a neighborhood boy and former gang member named Albert Ortero and several friends finally became sick and tired of the beatings, fear and threats of constant gang warfare. But they needed help to do something to stand against the violence. This is where Father Bryan Karvelis came into the picture.
In 1956, Father Bryan Karvelis was assigned to Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church on 263 Marcy Avenue. He was only 26 years at the time, and he became one of the most beloved priests in the parish. He was someone who cared. Truly cared. When opportunities came for him to move to different parishes, he stayed put, which was unusual. For nearly fifty years he served Transfiguration Church and made a huge impact on countless people. One man who came from a broken home and desperately needed a Dad, said Karvelis was like a father to him, a surrogate father. Another man donated his kidney to the priest.
Eager to help fight the raging gang problem in his neighborhood, Karvelis stepped in to work with Ortero and his friends to start a social group of boys who would resolutely refuse to partake in gang fighting. They modeled the group off the Christian principle of non-violence and named themselves the Corinthians, after the book in the New Testament.
Some of Albert’s friends that also got involved were Mario Serrano, who became the Vice President and was very good friends with Albert Ortero, Calixto O’Neill as Counselor, Jose Lugo as Judge and Louis Jiminez as Treasurer.
I have the privilege of being friends with Mario Serrano, who is alive and well and more than happy to share his experiences of what it was like being the Vice President of a social club in the middle of gang territory. Mario, who is in his 70s now, loves life and it’s not too much of a stretch to see how he would be involved in a venture like this. He wanted peace and was more interested in music and beautiful girls than gang fights.
It takes guts to not fight, but that’s exactly what was expected of anybody who wanted to join the Corinthians. If a Corinthian was hit by somebody, they did not run for help, but stood on his own. As Albert said it, “we won’t fight for you, but we’ll go to your funeral.” Some might call it naive, especially when this went against the gang code of revenge. But it worked for them. Being a Corinthian wasn’t for the faint of heart. To be a member, there was a probationary period where Father Karvelis and the leadership of the Corinthians carefully watched to see if the prospective member had really given up jitterbugging.
After joining the Corinthians, it was expected that they would attend church and take Communion. Meetings were conducted at Transfiguration church on Tuesday nights. Around 60 members ranging from the ages of 13-21 became members.
Today Mario has fond memories of the Corinthians. He recalls that in 1958 he used to borrow the keys to the Transfiguration Church from Karvelis on Friday evenings. There, whoever wanted to join in fun activities could hang out. Mario saw it as his duty to keep the boys and girls safe and out of trouble. Plus it was easier for him to keep an eye on the pretty girls he had his eye on. Mario recalled one day when Father Karvelis said to him that he only saw him at church on Friday evenings. He wanted Mario to attend church services and Communion too. Quickly Mario responded, “Yes, but look at all the kids I’m keeping out of trouble!” Karvelis smiled and winked in return.
It wasn’t all roses for Mario. He was in a tough situation. He lived smack dab in Phantom Lord turf, but also knew many of the Hellburners and went to school with them. But he was able to gain their trust and respect. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work like that for the other Corinthians. One time some of them were roughed up by a gang, so Ortero stepped in and told the attackers that the Corinthians weren’t going to be provoked and they were not a fighting gang. Mario did his part too and told the Phantom Lords and Hellburners that the Corinthians were a social club and not part of the gang scene. Generally this approach worked, and both the Lords and Burners respected the Corinthians and the coolie concept.
Today Mario is considering pulling together a Corinthians reunion, complete with their original sweaters which was a hunter green cardigan with an embroidered large Roman “C” in Gold. If you want to get in touch with Mario, please send me an email at [email protected] and I will put you in touch with Mario.