Manayunk parishes welcome cardinal’s visit

As they struggle with long-term demographic changes, and the impact of a new round of clergy abuse scandals, the Catholic parishes of Manayunk warmly welcomed Cardinal Justin Rigali on Sunday. 

Cardinal Rigali celebrated the 10 a.m. Mass at St. Josaphat’s Church and preached a homily that referred indirectly to the problems outlined recently in a Philadelphia grand jury report. The report led to charges against four priests and one former Catholic school teacher.

“There are many limitations,” Rigali said to the congregation. “There are many sins. There are many weaknesses. And yet, God loves us. But we must also recognize that we are imperfect and that our neighbors are imperfect. It’s not an excuse for not trying over and over again.”

“As Catholics we are hurt and confused and perhaps even quite angry,” the cardinal had said earlier in a statement.  “At this moment, as people of faith we must reach out in compassion and support for one another and for all who are affected by this news.”

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In an interview before the cardinal’s visit, Rev. Charles Zlock, the pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Manayunk, acknowledged the challenge of overcoming the allegations and attracting people back into the parish.He recommended focusing on younger generations.

“We must look across generational divides,” Father Zlock said.  “We’re not offering them anything that enhances their spirituality.”

He said the church needs to adjust in an age of text messages and iPads.

“If your church isn’t on their screen, it doesn’t exist,” Zlock said.  “We are stumbling with this, and but we are looking at it.”

Father Zlock said it is too early to measure what effect the latest abuse allegations will have on parishioners’ connection to the church, but he said, but that Cardinal Rigali’s presence Sunday will bolster confidence.

“Rigali is a shepherd more than anything,” Father Zlock said. “The churches are stable and viable and if we are wise stewards, with a declining number of priests, we are going to address the abuse allegations.”

Manayunk has five Catholic churches, all of which feed into Holy Child Catholic School. Besides St. Mary’s and St. Josaphat’s, they are St. John the Baptist, St. Lucy’s and Holy Family.

Manayunk’s quaint setting and lively scene have lured college students and young professionals to the neighborhood, changing the dynamics of a neighborhood whose working-class families used to be more oriented to parish life.

Responding to the shrinking and aging of congregations, the five parishes joined together to run Holy Child  School. The school recently celebrated its 125th anniversary.

Mary-Jane Hennessy, the 86-year-old historian of St. Mary’s church, has memories of the place that go back to her childhood days. “I remember getting told to sit up straight,” Hennessy said.  “I remember hoping I wouldn’t have to go here, but I’d miss it when I wouldn’t go.”

Hennessy, a mother of seven children, echoed Father Zlock’s concerns about declining membership due to an influx of youthful residents, but she remains hopeful that young professionals will form families in Manayunk instead of moving to the suburbs.

“People are very dedicated to their parishes,” she said. 


Damon Fillmon and Julie Achilles are part of the Philadelphia Neighborhoods journalism program at Temple University.

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