Nobody said it at the time — I mean, who wants to be a downer on a holiday — but we all assumed that the Christmas Eve Mass last December would likely be our last at St. Lucy’s.
The Manayunk parish that had been my family’s spiritual home since the early 1960s was dying slowly, and there was little anyone could do about it. Since the elementary school where all six of my parents’ children had learned to read had closed in 2005, we had watched the parish decline like a beloved relative surrendering to the slow implosion of age and infirmity.
Of course, being Catholic, we all felt an appropriate level of guilt about it.
While St. Lucy’s had been the place we were baptized, marched in May Processions and been married, most of us had moved away from the old neighborhood and joined other parishes. But still, we found ourselves back at St. Lucy’s each Christmas Eve, warbling “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” in halting Italian, a nod to the days when the parish was dominated by big families with vowel-heavy names like Consolo, DiGiovanni, Volpe, Mangano, and Zurzola.
So when we gathered this past Dec. 24, waiting for Santa Claus to tread silently down the darkened aisle to present the “Baby Jesus” with a gift and make us all dab tears from our eyes, we knew in our hearts it would be the last time. Otherwise, why would “they” —Archdiocesan leaders are always just “they” — have let the former pastor, Rev. Francis Sabatini, return to celebrate the Christmas Eve Mass, to lead the procession around the church, redolent of incense, holding aloft a statue of the infant?
Now, it’s official: The last Mass at St. Lucy will be celebrated at 11:30 a.m. this Sunday, July 1.
After the service, we’ll eat spaghetti in the church hall where as first-graders we dressed as our patron saints, and where we shared awkward eighth-grade slow dances. And then, St. Lucy church, bright with blonde wood and Italian marble, stark and modern in comparison to older, more ornate sanctuaries like Holy Family and St. John the Baptist, will become just the latest addition to a growing collection of relics of a Philadelphia that no longer exists.
When we gather to say goodbye, we won’t be alone in our mourning. Other Northwest parishes, including St. Francis of Assisi in Germantown and Immaculate Conception in East Germantown, have closed this month. The last Catholic school in Manayunk is gone, too, since the plan for “St. Blaise,” planned as a last-ditch conglomeration of several other defunct schools, didn’t take off.
Yet my current parish, in the South Jersey suburb where my husband and I are raising our son, is growing fast enough that Sunday Masses are often standing-room-only and the parish religious education classes fill up faster than you can say a Hail Mary. Like the Scripture says, to everything there is a season.
Several years back, at one of my many nephews’ eighth-grade graduation Masses, Father Sabatini preached a sermon about roots and branches, growth and change. St. Lucy’s was their root system, he told the class, the stable foundation from which the students would grow. Their lives, their future families, would be the branches that extend out from St. Lucy’s, flowering and bearing fruit in years to come.
What happens, I wonder now, when those roots are yanked from the ground?
It’s tough sometimes to be a reporter whose job it is to write about neighborhoods, even more so when you’re reporting on your own hometown. You see the way people resist change, how they tend to view with suspicion or outright hostility anything that might change their immediate surroundings, even sometimes when it would be for the better. My reasoning says that if cities are really the living organisms we believe them to be, then they must grow and evolve, becoming different versions of themselves.
The logical part of my brain understands this. My sentimental heart can hardly bear it.
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