Two Frankford churches face possible closures

Un­cer­tainty looms: St. Joachim par­ish dates to 1845. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHO­TOS

In this sea­son of Lent, the fates of St. Joachim, the old­est Cath­ol­ic church in North­east Phil­adelphia, and the strik­ingly beau­ti­ful Ma­ter Dol­orosa, home to an Itali­an par­ish, are hanging in the bal­ance.

When the Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia an­nounced on Jan. 14 that it was mer­ging St. Hugh of Cluny Par­ish in­to St. Veron­ica, at 6th and Tioga streets, Arch­bish­op Charles J. Chaput in­dic­ated that he wanted fur­ther stud­ies on the vi­ab­il­ity of St. Joachim, Ma­ter Dol­orosa, both of Frank­ford, Ju­ni­ata’s Holy In­no­cents and Har­rowg­ate’s St. Joan of Arc.

When the arch­diocese an­nounced on Feb. 3 that St. Donato was mer­ging in­to its Over­brook neigh­bor, Our Lady of Lourdes, Chaput called for more in­put and broad­er con­sulta­tion on the fu­tures of the churches in Frank­ford, Ju­ni­ata and Har­rowg­ate.

At Masses last week­end, the pas­tors of St. Joachim and Ma­ter Dol­orosa handed out identic­al let­ters that said a de­cision about those churches is ex­pec­ted some­time in the spring.

“There’s been much dis­cus­sion, but no de­cision,” said the Rev. John J. Large, pas­tor at both Ma­ter Dol­orosa and St. Joan of Arc in an in­ter­view earli­er in the week.

Back in 2003, the arch­diocese closed the schools at Ma­ter Dol­orosa, St. Joachim and St. Joan of Arc, and stu­dents were sent to Holy In­no­cents.

Noth­ing is of­fi­cial, but it ap­pears that St. Joan of Arc Church will close and be merged in­to Holy In­no­cents, with pa­rish­ion­ers also able to at­tend St. George, in Port Rich­mond, Large spec­u­lated.

St. Joachim, at 1527 Church St., and Ma­ter Dol­orosa, at 1676 Ru­an St., are sep­ar­ated only by Frank­ford Av­en­ue.

However, pa­rish­ion­ers at both churches have not ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm about a mer­ger, since none want their par­ish to be the one to close.

As­sum­ing the St. Joan of Arc/Holy In­no­cents mer­ger is a done deal, that leaves Chaput with a big de­cision.

“What are we go­ing to do with Ma­ter Dol­orosa and St. Joachim?” Large asked.

The folks at St. Joachim are proud to note that their par­ish, formed in Janu­ary 1845, is the old­est in the North­east. They re­built the church after a dev­ast­at­ing 1979 fire.

The pa­rish­ion­ers at Ma­ter Dol­orosa, foun­ded in 1911 after Itali­an im­mig­rants pe­ti­tioned the arch­diocese for a new church, point to their out­reach to the Span­ish-speak­ing com­munity and be­lieve the in­teri­or and ex­ter­i­or beauty of their church is a beacon in East Frank­ford.

Ma­ter Dol­orosa is plan­ning a “Bring-A-Friend Mass & Pasta Sup­per” on April 14, and or­gan­izers are hop­ing it isn’t the church’s last fun­draiser. Wait­ing for Chaput’s an­nounce­ment, one way or the oth­er, hasn’t been easy.

“I hope he makes the right de­cision,” said long­time pa­rish­ion­er Rose Flem­ming. “It would be a real shame if it closes.”

The Rev. Steven P. Wet­zel, pas­tor at St. Joachim, is preach­ing pa­tience, but that doesn’t make the wait any easi­er.

“We just don’t know what’s hap­pen­ing,” he said. “Everything is in the hands of the arch­diocese. We’re just wait­ing.”

Ken Gav­in, spokes­man for the arch­diocese, said some of the factors that go in­to the de­cision in­clude Mass at­tend­ance and the num­ber of fu­ner­als, mar­riages and bap­tisms.

“We look at that over sev­er­al years to see if a par­ish is in a mode of growth or a mode of de­cline,” he said.

Gav­in said oth­er factors in­clude the phys­ic­al con­di­tion of build­ings, the level of sac­ra­ment­al and spir­itu­al activ­it­ies and a par­ish’s fin­an­cial state.

As priests age and few­er men enter the sem­in­ary, the strain in­creases on lead­er­ship at par­ishes.

The arch­diocese’s Par­ish Pas­tor­al Plan­ning Area ini­ti­at­ive, which began in 2011, is look­ing to the fu­ture.

“The goal of that is to cre­ate a sus­tain­able par­ish that will be around for a very long time,” Gav­in said.

There are 251 par­ishes in the arch­diocese, which con­sists of Phil­adelphia and the sub­urb­an counties.

Like clos­ing schools, the arch­diocese takes no de­light in shut­ting down churches, Gav­in said.

“It’s a very pain­ful pro­cess, but a ne­ces­sary one,” he said.

St. Joachim and Ma­ter Dol­orosa might not be the only loc­al churches in jeop­ardy.

Wissi­nom­ing’s St. Bartho­lomew; Ta­cony’s St. Leo and Our Lady of Con­sol­a­tion; the May­fair area’s St. Timothy, St. Mat­thew and St. Bern­ard; and Brides­burg’s St. John Can­ti­us and All Saints have been in­volved in the plan­ning pro­cess since last Septem­ber.

St. Mat­thew is the only one of those churches that has a par­ish school and is flour­ish­ing, so it is likely it is not in danger of clos­ing.

The churches that are strug­gling in the North­east are gen­er­ally those loc­ated in neigh­bor­hoods where the Cath­ol­ic pop­u­la­tion has moved.

The Rev. Steve Leva, pas­tor at St. Timothy, is con­fid­ent his church will be saved, and that was re­flec­ted in a March 3 “Dear Pa­rish­ion­ers” let­ter.

“I re­peat my sin­cere be­lief that Saint Timothy par­ish will not be closed mostly be­cause we are still a large, thriv­ing par­ish and also we provide a home for the Re­gion­al School,” he wrote. “We may end up hav­ing an­oth­er par­ish or two merged in­to our par­ish, but that is not something that I know for sure.”

Churches rely heav­ily on pa­rish­ion­ers to put money in­to the weekly col­lec­tion bas­kets to pay the bills.

At Ma­ter Dol­orosa, 142 people at­ten­ded the three week­end Masses on March 2-3, con­trib­ut­ing $1,208.

At St. Joachim, Wet­zel said the three week­end Masses typ­ic­ally bring in $2,000 to $2,500.

Last week­end, Large and Wet­zel wrote “Dear Friends in Christ” let­ters, ba­sic­ally telling pa­rish­ion­ers that fi­nal de­cisions are ex­pec­ted in the spring.

“The two par­ishes up in the air are the ones in Frank­ford — Ma­ter Dol­orosa and St. Joachim,” Large said. “There are all kinds of the­or­ies. We’re still wait­ing for a de­cision. Something’s go­ing to hap­pen, but we don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen.” ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­

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