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, keepthefaithinfrankford.org.
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. ••