Old St. Joseph’s Q&A

Respondent: Fr. Mark Horak, S.J.

1. Old St. Joseph’s is the oldest Roman Catholic parish in Philadelphia, a National Shrine and the only place in the British Empire where a Roman Catholic mass could be celebrated publically. What is your congregation’s role in the history of the waterfront? How does this the congregation’s history, building and place illustrate the role of the Roman Catholic Church Philadelphia? What challenges have Old St. Joseph’s faced?

Our church was founded to serve Catholics in Philadelphia, nearly all of whom arrived in Philadelphia through the port. Much of our church’s work in subsequent years was aimed at the care of later immigrant populations who also arrived through the port. In this, OSJ established one of the primary roles of the Catholic Church for the next 200 years – the care of immigrant populations through churches, hospitals, and schools.
OSJ has faced well the challenge of shifting Catholic populations with their shifting needs.
Ours was the first Catholic church in Philadelphia, preceding the Archdiocese by 75 years.

2. How has your congregational make-up and ministry evolved over the past fifty years? What sorts of people attend services at Old St. Joseph’s and where do they come from? What has drawn them to this church in particular?

OSJ no longer operates a parish school and no longer has a major ministry to immigrants. However, we continue to do much of what we have always done – care of the poor; religious education of children and adults; sacramental ministry; promoting and teaching the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola.
Our parishioners come from throughout the Philadelphia and Camden metropolitan areas. They tell us they are attracted to the strong sense of community among our parishioners, our lively liturgical life and good preaching, our commitment to social justice, and our willingness to dialogue with the secular culture and with persons of other faith traditions.

3. What are some of your thoughts about how Society Hill/Old City has evolved in recent years, especially how the neighborhood has been transformed into one of the city’s most fashionable residential districts? How has this affected your synagogue’s mission and congregation?

We are committed to the pastoral care of anyone who joins us, regardless of their place of residence or their circumstances. We are especially committed to the care of the poor and disadvantaged, although there are few who live close enough to be active and regular members of OSJ. I am saddened that changes in the neighborhood have displaced the poor. I wish that our congregation were more diverse in terms of socio-economic characteristics (we are mostly white, middle income, and well-educated).

4. What are your feelings about the proposed waterfront developments, not just casinos but also residential and commercial. How do you feel these will affect your ministry and church?

I look forward to the sound development of the riverfront. I hope this development includes a variety of uses and provides housing for a wide variety of residents. There is no question that any development of the riverfront for other than open space purposes will have some negative effects, e.g., increased traffic, noise, etc… However, I expect our local officials will meet their responsibility to take appropriate steps to minimize these negative impacts, especially on surrounding residential neighborhoods. If riverfront development displaces current residents, some of whom are parishioners, our church may be harmed. However, since riverfront development will likely take place east of I-95 where few people currently live, I don’t expect it to displace significant numbers of current residents. Whether new development will adversely affect our neighborhood will depend largely on how it is designed. In reviewing proposed developments, public officials need to give due consideration to the concerns and needs of current residents and businesses, and not just to the interests of riverfront property owners and developers. That does not always seem to have happened.

5. What do you see as the future of Old St. Joseph’s?

We will continue to serve our parishioners according to their needs and according to our Jesuit apostolic priorities and our traditional “way of proceeding.”

6. How has the construction of I-95 affected your congregation?

Since many of our parishioners come to us from other parts of the city, I-95 has probably helped bring people to us. However, it is a terrible design, effectively cutting off the city from the river. if it had to be built, it should never have been built the way it was.

7. In a sentence, what does the phrase “Holy Experiment” mean to you in 2007?
I am no historian, but it seems to me that the “Holy Experiment” of William Penn was one of the ways men and women have tried to create social and political systems based on religious beliefs. Most folks think this is just fine provided they share these beliefs, but it is a dangerous tendency.   We  also need to constantly remind ourselves of Penn’s founding values of non-violence and religious freedom.   These are values that demonstrate the best that religion can bring to our social and political culture.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal