Final farewell

Three North­east churches have their last Masses. 

Signs of sup­port: The Rev. John Large walks in­to Ma­ter Dol­orosa Church in Frank­ford for the last Mass. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

The bells beck­on­ing pa­rish­ion­ers to wor­ship rang for the fi­nal time at the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday out­side St. Joachim Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church in Frank­ford.

In­side, about 500 people crowded in­to the pews for the last Mass at the old­est Cath­ol­ic church in the North­east. St. Joachim opened in 1845 and, like two oth­er churches in North­east Philly, was told in May that it would have to close be­cause of de­clines in week­end Mass at­tend­ance, mar­riages and bap­tisms.

Pa­rish­ion­ers at St. Joachim are fight­ing to keep their church alive, prom­ising to take their cam­paign all the way to the Vat­ic­an. But at Frank­ford’s only oth­er Ro­man Cath­ol­ic church, Ma­ter Dol­orosa, it’s a dif­fer­ent story. Pa­rish­ion­ers have de­cided to ac­cept the Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia’s de­cision to close the church  as of Sunday. 

At St. Leo the Great in Ta­cony, an­oth­er church slated for clos­ing, pa­rish­ion­ers as of Monday were still plan­ning to ap­peal the de­cision. The three churches are among 15 in the re­gion that the arch­diocese de­cided to aban­don as Cath­ol­ics moved from in­ner city to the sub­urbs.

On Sunday, re­port­ers from the North­east Times at­ten­ded the last Mass at each of the three North­east par­ishes and found some com­mon threads. Tears flowed freely as dec­ades-long pa­rish­ion­ers said good­bye to their spir­itu­al homes. Re­tired pas­tors and pa­rish­ion­ers who had moved away from the old churches re­turned for fi­nal farewells. And many wor­shipers lingered after the fi­nal hymns had been sung to take pho­tos of fa­mil­i­ar in­teri­ors that would soon go dark.


At St. Joachim’s, Ann Young brought along a box of tis­sues as she got ready to sing in the church choir. Her fam­ily moved in­to the par­ish in 1954, and for six dec­ades she had re­mained part of St. Joachim.

“It’s very sad,” she said of the clos­ing. “It’s been my spir­itu­al home since I was 9. This is a spir­itu­ally rich place.”

Young and oth­ers ar­gue that there is no reas­on for the arch­diocese to close the church. They say St. Joachim, at 1527 Church St., is fin­an­cially solvent and brings in rent­al in­come from its con­vent and former school, which closed in 2003. The par­ish is staffed by the Ob­lates of St. Fran­cis de Sales, mean­ing the arch­diocese does not have to as­sign a priest there.

“The thing that breaks my heart is that this is the first par­ish in the North­east,” Young said. “This is a his­tor­ic church, and they’re clos­ing it.”

The de­cision to close St. Joachim and Ma­ter Dol­orosa will leave Frank­ford without a Ro­man Cath­ol­ic church for the first time in 168 years. Pa­rish­ion­ers of those two churches, along with mem­bers of Har­rowg­ate’s St. Joan of Arc, have been told to at­tend Holy In­no­cents, in Ju­ni­ata.

The three closed churches still will serve as wor­ship sites for a year, avail­able for fu­ner­als or wed­dings, at the dis­cre­tion of the Rev. Thomas Hig­gins, pas­tor at Holy In­no­cents.

Many people, though, are hold­ing out hope that St. Joachim will re­open someday in the near fu­ture. They’ve com­mu­nic­ated with Arch­bish­op Charles J. Chaput by let­ter and email, and they’ve held sev­er­al demon­stra­tions out­side the Cathed­ral Ba­silica of Saints Peter and Paul. But the arch­diocese did not con­sider any ap­peals, and Chaput de­clined to meet with pa­rish­ion­ers.

Now, they’ve taken the next step. They’ve con­tac­ted law­yers, and ap­pear well on their way to rais­ing the es­tim­ated $11,800 ne­ces­sary to ap­peal to the Vat­ic­an’s Con­greg­a­tion for the Clergy.

One of those law­yers is Bo­ston-based Peter Borre, who handled sim­il­ar cases in Clev­e­land, where Bish­op Richard Len­non closed 50 churches, cit­ing demo­graph­ic shifts, money woes and priest short­ages.

In March 2012, the Vat­ic­an re­versed Len­non’s de­cision on a dozen churches, and they were re­opened.

“We want a church in Frank­ford,” said Pat Smi­ley, who is lead­ing the ap­peal ef­fort and has cre­ated a web­site, keep­thefaith­in­fran­k­

As the bells pealed on Sunday, the par­ish pas­tor, the Rev. Steve Wet­zel, walked in a pro­ces­sion up the cen­ter aisle. He was joined by five al­tar serv­ers and five fel­low Ob­lates, in­clud­ing his pre­de­cessor as pas­tor, the Rev. Robert Bazzoli.

  In his homily, Wet­zel held up a large stone that was part of the arch of the ori­gin­al church. The stone had been passed down over the years to each pas­tor un­til it reached Wet­zel, the church’s 17th and fi­nal pas­tor.

Wet­zel, who spent eight years at St. Joachim, de­scribed it as “a dia­mond in the rough.” He thanked his staff, pa­rish­ion­ers and the Sis­ters, Ser­vants of the Im­macu­late Heart of Mary, for their ded­ic­a­tion. He also singled out John Mc­Cabe, can­tor for the last 37 years, and Ed Green, or­gan­ist for the last 18 years.

There was no need for a church bul­let­in or a col­lec­tion. Wet­zel gave an up­beat homily, para­phras­ing St. Fran­cis de Sales to “Al­ways live in the present mo­ment.”

For now, Wet­zel will serve as a chap­lain for Fraternal Or­der of Po­lice Lodge 5 and be in res­id­ence at St. Domin­ic, a Holmes­burg par­ish that re­places St. Joachim as the old­est Cath­ol­ic church in the North­east.

Al and Mary McKay, who live on Church Street, right across from St. Joachim, had the hon­or of tak­ing the gifts of the bread and wine to the al­tar for the fi­nal time. Wet­zel gave the last Holy Com­mu­nion host to Pete Specos, pres­id­ent of the Frank­ford Civic As­so­ci­ation.

U.S. Dis­trict Court Judge Tim Sav­age was in­vited to of­fer re­marks be­fore Mass ended. Sav­age is a gradu­ate of St. Joachim Gram­mar School, and six gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily have been pa­rish­ion­ers. He asked people to close their eyes and think of their good memor­ies of the par­ish.

“Take that memory, em­brace it and be thank­ful we’ve been for­tu­nate, with God’s bless­ing, to be part of a vi­brant faith com­munity,” he said.

The con­greg­a­tion sang a fa­mil­i­ar hymn, Faith of Our Fath­ers. Wet­zel dipped his fin­gers in the holy wa­ter and ac­cep­ted cards from pa­rish­ion­ers be­fore walk­ing out as pas­tor for the fi­nal time. 

Down­stairs, in Fitzmaurice Hall, people gathered for a catered meal. 

“It’s been a great run, hasn’t it?” Wet­zel said.


In 2011, dur­ing the cel­eb­ra­tion of the 100th an­niversary of Ma­ter Dol­orosa, pa­rish­ion­ers wrote let­ters that were to be opened by pa­rish­ion­ers in 2111. They’ll nev­er see them. 

At “The Mot’s” last Mass, the at­mo­sphere was al­most as fest­ive and nos­tal­gic as a re­union. In a way, it was a re­union. People could be over­heard ask­ing each oth­er where they now live.

A man who said he’s now a mem­ber of St. Domin­ic Par­ish said he got mar­ried at The Mot at Paul and Ru­an streets 25 years ago. His wife, he said, was from Paul Street.

Tony Re­imer of New Jer­sey said his fam­ily moved out of Frank­ford when he was very young, but ad­ded his fath­er and moth­er had told him so much about the church that he had to come.

There were tears, too. At one point, a young man cir­cu­lated through the crowd, hand­ing out tis­sues. 

Hun­dreds packed the small church, its ves­ti­bule and choir loft. Every seat was taken. People stood along the walls and in the back of the church.

Those who at­ten­ded the last Mass were al­most ex­clus­ively white and very talk­at­ive. Con­ver­sa­tions that began out­side the church nev­er really ceased, even after a pro­ces­sion of pa­rish­ion­ers came down Paul Street, in­to the church and the Mass began.

The older people prayed, sang and talked while some of the young­er people in the pews played games on their smart phones dur­ing the al­most two-hour-long Mass, which was offered in Eng­lish and Span­ish.

Oth­ers used their smart phones to take pho­tos or video. Cam­era flashes were al­most con­stant.

The Rev. John Large, pas­tor for the past eight years, looked out at the crowded church and said, “Thank you for com­ing back to Frank­ford.”

The pas­tor asked pa­rish­ion­ers not to dwell on the past but look to the fu­ture. He en­cour­aged them to be aware that the ex­per­i­ences and memor­ies of The Mot had shaped who they are.

“When a church is closed, people feel be­trayed,” he said. They feel re­sent­ment and self-pity, he said.

“Our re­li­gion began on the night Je­sus was be­trayed,” he said.

Large said The Mot’s pa­rish­ion­ers should take with them, “all that is de­cent and good in the uni­verse.”

And he asked: “Are you go­ing to make your next par­ish bet­ter, or will you be go­ing to an­oth­er last Mass?”

When Large com­pleted his homily the crowd gave him stand­ing ova­tion.

The ce­re­mony also in­cluded a pro­ces­sion of books: the bap­tis­mal re­gistry book; the mar­riage re­gistry book; a list of de­par­ted pa­rish­ion­ers and a gradu­ation dip­loma from the church school, which closed in 2003.

Al­though The Mot has al­ways been an Itali­an par­ish, it was a par­ish coun­cil mem­ber with an Ir­ish sur­name, Patrick Loftus (no re­la­tion to re­port­er John Loftus), who spoke about the church’s his­tory.

He said pa­rish­ion­ers had only one re­gret with Fath­er Large — that he wasn’t Itali­an. But they rec­ti­fied that, nam­ing him an hon­or­ary cit­izen of Italy.

Loftus said The Mot was a seat of power dur­ing the mid-1940s to early 1980s, when the Rev. Al­bert Palumbo was pas­tor. Politi­cians and oth­er movers-and-shakers called the par­ish home. And, he ad­ded, The Mot had the city’s largest bingo game. Fath­er Palumbo had enough in­flu­ence with SEPTA that ex­tra buses were put on dur­ing the days the par­ish had bingo games.

That golden age came to an end by the 1990s, Loftus said, when the pa­rish­ion­ers who had been the back­bone of the par­ish were mov­ing to the sub­urbs, and the church de­clined.

Loftus praised Fath­er Large as “a man without pre­tense. What you see is what you get.” He looked at him and said, “You were a real cham­pi­on of Ma­ter Dol­orosa.”

Loftus said after Mass that The Mot would be a mis­sion church for a year — wed­dings and fu­ner­als, but no bap­tisms. 


At St. Leo the Great Par­ish in Ta­cony, a bit­ter­sweet mood en­vel­oped the 11:30 a.m. Mass.

“It’s happy and sad,” said Jean Hicks, who has been a mem­ber of the par­ish for 30 years.

“It’s both at the same time,” agreed Emile Nemchik, who has been a mem­ber for sev­en years and de­livered two Bib­lic­al read­ings dur­ing the Mass. “It was good to see so many people here, and we’re very grate­ful we were able to have so many years here.”

The weekly par­ish bul­let­in de­scribed St. Leo as an “off-shoot” of St. Domin­ic Par­ish in Up­per Holmes­burg. The church was foun­ded in 1884 and built on land pur­chased by Arch­bish­op Patrick Ry­an from Mary Dis­ston, the wid­ow of Dis­ston Saw Works founder Henry Dis­ston, for $1,500. Though the ori­gin­al plans called for a church bell to be in­stalled atop the stone spire, it was de­leted from the plans due to ob­jec­tion from the Dis­ston fam­ily.

More than half of the up­per church’s 1,000 seats were filled for the fi­nal Mass, which was cel­eb­rated by the pas­tor, the Rev. Joseph L. Far­rell, and four oth­er act­ive and re­tired priests.

“I thought it was sad, yet not de­press­ing,” Far­rell said. “There’s still an ele­ment of hope and grat­it­ude, but there were tears.”

The Rev. John J. Farry, who was pas­tor from 1992 to 2009, also par­ti­cip­ated in the ser­vice, as did the Rev. Joseph O’Bri­en, who was as­sist­ant pas­tor from 1984 to 2002. O’Bri­en ar­rived at St. Leo in the par­ish’s centen­ni­al year and has fond memor­ies of the cel­eb­ra­tions then.

Long­time pa­rish­ion­ers have wit­nessed a gradu­al shrink­ing of par­ti­cip­a­tion in the church, however. They wer­en’t sur­prised by the arch­diocese’s ul­ti­mate de­cision to dis­solve the par­ish and merge its mem­bers with the nearby Our Lady of Con­sol­a­tion.

“Right now, it’s pretty sad, but we ex­pec­ted it. Our at­tend­ance was drop­ping off,” said Jim Lar­don, 75, whose fam­ily moved from Kens­ing­ton to Ta­cony when he was 2 years old.

Lar­don at­ten­ded St. Leo grade school for nine years and gradu­ated from North Cath­ol­ic High School, which the arch­diocese closed in 2010.

“When I used to go [to school], there were all nuns, no lay teach­ers,” Lar­don said. “There was no goof­ing around. When the school closed up [in 2005], that hurt [the par­ish].”

Phil­lip Hoff­man and his fi­ance, Shel­ley Bas­tos, are dis­ap­poin­ted that their son Phil­lip Jr., who is 16 months old, won’t be able to grow up in the par­ish. The boy was bap­tized at St. Leo. His par­ents were hop­ing to get mar­ried in the church. They were un­aware of any plans to ap­peal the par­ish clos­ing, al­though Phil­lip Sr. be­lieves more could be done to save the church.

“I think there’s more be­ing done for the trans­fer [of pa­rish­ion­ers] and the mer­ger, than the fight to keep it open,” he said. “A lot of mem­bers are very dis­ap­poin­ted.”

“We were hop­ing he was go­ing to have his sac­ra­ments here and we were go­ing to get mar­ried here,” Bas­tos said.

They’re not sure if they will at­tend OLC or find an­oth­er par­ish. Ac­cord­ing to Far­rell, that’s a ques­tion many pa­rish­ion­ers con­tin­ue to con­tem­plate. The arch­diocese has ap­poin­ted Far­rell as the new pas­tor at OLC.

“I’m hop­ing they will come to Our Lady of Con­sol­a­tion since I’ll be pas­tor there,” he said. “Many said they would, but it’s a per­son­al de­cision.”

Far­rell plans to con­tin­ue 8 a.m. Sunday Masses at the St. Leo site as long as the arch­diocese al­lows. They will be held in the church’s chapel. There will also be daily 8:30 a.m. Masses in the chapel as well as Span­ish-lan­guage ser­vices at 11:30 a.m. Sundays. Nev­er­the­less, the de­mise of St. Leo as an in­de­pend­ent par­ish will leave a hole in the com­munity.

“[The con­greg­a­tion] is a small, close-knit group, and there’s a real gen­er­os­ity and con­cern for the neigh­bor­hood,” Far­rell said. ••

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