Parishioners of two Northeast Philadelphia churches that were told they will close because of declining membership have decided to put up a fight to keep their doors open.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia last weekend officially announced its plans to close St. Joachim, the mother church that launched many other parishes in the Northeast, and historic Mater Dolorosa. The two churches are separated only by the Frankford El and, if shuttered, would leave Frankford without a Roman Catholic church for the first time in 168 years.
In addition, the archdiocese announced the closing of St. Leo in Tacony.
But parishioners at St. Joachim and St. Leo are petitioning the archdiocese to reverse its decision. They don’t have much time. The closings are to take effect on July 1.
For years, the Northeast had been spared when the Archdiocese announced church closings. Instead, they hit in places like Swampoodle and Southwest Philadelphia and Chester, where Catholics have fled.
But last weekend, the church consolidation finally caught up with the Northeast. The official word came in “Dear Friends in Christ” letters placed in the weekly bulletins and read from the pulpits. The pastors of the affected churches signed similar form letters provided by the archdiocese.
“I know this news may cause sadness and pain,” each letter said. “In the work of building up the Church and maintaining God’s Kingdom on earth we must let go of something so near and dear to each of our hearts.”
The letter also asked God to grant “the grace, strength and wisdom to complete this process with charity and patience.”
For Mater Dolorosa lifers like Rose Damm, 85, the news hit hard.
“It’s a very emotional, sad time for all of us,” she said. “We get a lot of spiritual uplift here. We’re going to miss it terribly. I was happy and proud to be a part of it.”
Mater Dolorosa and St. Joachim, along with Harrowgate’s St. Joan of Arc, will be merged into Juniata’s Holy Innocents. St. Leo will merge into its Tacony neighbor, Our Lady of Consolation.
In all, 15 parishes will close at the end of the month. Ten are in Philadelphia, and five are in Delaware County. That will leave the archdiocese with 236 parishes.
The archdiocese did not give specific reasons for its decisions. Instead, a news release stated the mergers were based generally on Catholic demographic shifts; the density of parishes in a geographic area; a history of declining Mass attendance and sacramental activity; increasing economic challenges; a review of facilities; and a decrease in clergy.
During the remainder of June, the Rev. Thomas Higgins, pastor at Holy Innocents, will form a transition team to handle the changeover. The Rev. Joseph L. Farrell, who is moving from pastor of St. Leo to the same position at Our Lady of Consolation, will do the same.
For the time being, the archdiocese will keep Mater Dolorosa, St. Joachim and St. Leo open for weddings, funerals, feast days, ethnic devotions and an occasional Sunday Mass, all at the discretion of the pastors at Holy Innocents and Our Lady of Consolation.
Over the weekend, the Northeast Times visited each of the three parishes to see the impact on parishioners about to lose their home churches, where some of the most sacred moments in life are celebrated.
Mater Dolorosa, a beautiful church on the inside and outside at 1676 Ruan St., offers a 4 p.m. Mass on Saturdays.
The 40 or so people who attended the Mass were not shocked to find the form letter tucked inside the weekly bulletins they picked up on the way to their pew.
They knew the archdiocese was monitoring the parish’s well-being. And they can count. In 2011, according to the archdiocese’s statistics, Mater Dolorosa had eight infant baptisms, three marriages and an average weekend Mass attendance of 194.
“I knew it was coming, and I tried to communicate to you it was coming,” the Rev. John Large, the pastor for the last eight years, told parishioners in his homily. “Eight years ago, there were more people sitting here than there are today. There are more empty pews than people filling them.”
Still, bracing for the worst did not soften the blow of the official news that Mater Dolorosa, founded in 1911 after Italian immigrants petitioned the archdiocese for a new church, will close for good on June 30.
Even though the parishioners expected the news, “it hit like a tornado,” said Large, also pastor at St. Joan of Arc.
Large will become the pastor at St. Paul in South Philadelphia. He described the Mater Dolorosa community as a family.
The pastor invited parishioners to express their feelings during Mass, and Grace Michalczyk suggested that Mater Dolorosa parishioners sit near one another after the move to Holy Innocents.
“It will be comforting to have people around you that you know,” she said. “It will maintain a community feeling.”
Elizabeth Snider cried as she led the “Prayers of the Faithful,” and Large gave her a hug.
Parishioners like Large and say he did everything possible to keep the parish going.
“It’s nobody’s fault. The city changes. The well’s dry,” said Rick Mariano, a former city councilman and friend of Large.
Mariano, a Juniata native, also knows Father Higgins, and believes the Mater Dolorosa community will be well received by the diverse parishioners at Holy Innocents.
People have different reasons for loving “Mot.” Jane Wisniewski likes the friendly people. Aniela Earley considers it a second family. The women point to a guy like Ken McFadden, who will meet them at their cars with an umbrella on a rainy day and help the elderly up the steps.
Mater Dolorosa’s closing Mass will take place on June 30 at 11:15 a.m., and it is expected to be an emotional time.
“There will be boxes of tissues in every pew,” Snider predicted.
As St. Joachim parishioners approached the church for the 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday, they saw a table and a video camera.
Pat Smiley was collecting signatures on a petition to have the archdiocese reverse its decision. Her husband Bob filmed parishioners making the case to keep St. Joachim open.
Inside, the weekly bulletin wasn’t available until after Mass. The Rev. Steve Wetzel, the pastor, did not want parishioners distracted by the letter before he could address them during his homily.
“It’s a difficult time for all of us,” he told the crowd.
Wetzel is a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. He awaits word from the Oblates, who have served St. Joachim since 1978.
The pastor told his flock he will pray for them and support them over the next month.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’m worried about you.”
Parishioners pointed out that St. Joachim, founded in 1845 at 1527 Church St., is the oldest parish in the Northeast, and that it helped launch other churches in the area.
“It’s the mother church of the Northeast,” said Linda Schrader, a parishioner for 59 years.
Following a 1979 fire, St. Joachim was rebuilt by parishioners and their popular pastor, the late Rev. Anthony Silvestri.
Some parishioners expressed anger at the closing.
“We helped to build this church. We worked our butts off, and this is the thanks we get,” said Agnes Visco, a former CCD teacher and Eucharistic minister.
In announcing the closing, the archdiocese said St. Joachim had just four infant baptisms, no marriages and an average weekend Mass attendance of only 197 in 2011.
Parishioners say that St. Joachim has no debt and collects income from renting out other buildings on site. An Oblate can serve as pastor, costing the archdiocese nothing in terms of money or manpower.
The St. Joachim parishioners hope that the church is saved. They’ve started a Facebook page, and are asking for a meeting with Archbishop Charles Chaput.
“We rose from the ashes once,” Maureen Taylor said.
At St. Leo, at 6658 Keystone St., most of the 100 folks who attended the 11:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday grabbed a weekly bulletin on their way into church.
The bulletin included Pastor Farrell’s letter, which read in part, “My time in Tacony has been a time of personal, professional and spiritual growth. I will treasure my memory of St. Leo for the rest of my life as I am sure all of you will.”
Farrell learned last Wednesday about the church closing. Two days later, he was told that he’d be replacing the Rev. Dennis J. Carbonaro as pastor at Our Lady of Consolation. Carbonaro’s new assignment is as pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption in Strafford, an Italian parish in Chester County.
“It looks like I will be with you in Tacony for years to come,” Farrell said during a brief homily.
Many at St. Leo were happy to hear that, but they still want their church to stay open. They rallied on the front steps of the church after the 11:30 Mass, singing the school alma mater, reciting a prayer and holding signs and a banner declaring that St. Leo is the heart of Tacony.
In reaching its decision, the archdiocese produced figures from 2011 showing that St. Leo had 21 infant baptisms, six marriages and an average weekend Mass attendance of 342.
Ann Marie Kuvik, the parish social justice director, wrote a letter to Chaput soon after learning of the decision. She hopes he reconsiders.
Kuvik described St. Leo as a “viable and vibrant parish.” She pointed to an increase in baptisms, a Spanish language ministry, a strong youth program, a growing religious education program, sufficient parking and a lack of debt.
“The decision to close St. Leo does not make sense,” she said.
Scott Adair, a Eucharistic minister and pastoral and finance committee member, noted that St. Leo provides Thanksgiving meals and Christmas gifts for the needy. The parish conducts clothing drives and operates a food cupboard.
Adair believes St. Leo, founded in 1884, is still going strong.
“We’ve been taking care of the Tacony community the entire time,” he said.
Dick Heim, 81, said he thought the archdiocese should swallow its pride and admit it made a mistake in deciding to close St. Leo.
“The people of Tacony need St. Leo,” he said. “St. Leo forever.” ••
Churches to stay open:
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced these local churches will remain open:
• St. Bartholomew
• St. Bernard
• St. Matthew
• St. Timothy