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 firstname.lastname@example.org