One Norristown church, in the crosshairs of two natural disasters, gathers to pray

The majority Latino St. Patrick’s Church in Norristown held a special Mass Thursday night to provide healing, relief and catharsis for congregants grieving over natural disasters in Puerto Rico and Mexico.

Shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday night, Isidro Sosa slipped inside the empty chapel of St. Patrick’s Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

Kneeling before a painting of Christ upon the cross, Sousa offered a prayer.

“For my country,” he said. “For my people.”

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A native of Central Mexico — the same region rocked by an earthquake Tuesday — Sosa is among the lucky ones. His family and hometown survived, albeit with some scarred buildings to remind them of the quake’s power.

Many of the parishioners who streamed into St. Patrick’s over the next hour still do not have the same assurances — not about their property, not about their families.

Over the past week, a succession of natural disasters has put this revitalized parish in the crosshairs of tragedy.

About 70 percent of the church’s regulars have Mexican roots, said Pastor Gus Puleo. And most of St. Patrick’s Mexican immigrants hail from Puebla, the epicenter of Tuesday’s quake. Another 15 percent of parishioners hail from Puerto Rico, which was swallowed Wednesday by Hurricane Maria and left with unprecedented wreckage and power outages.

Milagros Rivera, born in Puerto Rico, was touched by both tragedies. Her husband is from central Mexico and happened to be there when the earthquake struck. He is all right, but Rivera can’t say the same about her many family members on the reeling Caribbean island.

Because Puerto Rico’s infrastructure has been so badly battered, Rivera hasn’t heard anything yet about her family’s fate. She spends her workdays “thinking, thinking, looking at the phone.”

When she prays, she asks God for some shred of communication — a text, a call, an email.

Cruz Fuentes, also from Puerto Rico, measures his anxiety in Sudoku puzzles.

Usually he completes one or two a day. Lately he’s tearing through 10 to 15, he said, seeking some distraction from what he still doesn’t know. So far, his family — spread across five towns in Puerto Rico — hasn’t been able to contact him.

“I gotta keep my mind busy,” he said.

There’s no break from the bad news. It seems to touch every corner of Latin America and the Spanish-speaking diaspora.

Fuentes and Rivera have close relatives who weathered Hurricane Irma in Florida, where there’s a booming Puerto Rican population. Fuentes also has a brother-in-law in Houston who soldiered through Hurricane Harvey.

To provide some combination of healing, relief and catharsis, St. Patrick’s held a special Mass Thursday night that doubled as a fundraiser for victims of both calamities. The same night in Philadelphia, Puerto Rican leaders also announced efforts to turn the festivities of Sunday’s Puerto Rican Day parade into an opportunity to raise funds for hurricane relief efforts, spearheaded by the nonprofit El Concilio. 

Because Thursday was the feast of St. Matthew, Father Puleo reminded parishioners of Jesus’ words to the apostle: “Follow me. Follow me.” Even in the worst times, Puleo told them in his sermon, they still must follow Christ.

“My job is so easy because you came here,” Puleo said. “I didn’t have to bring you here.”

The 250 or so who filled the church Thursday night testified to the Latino influx that has tilted Norristown‘s demographics and revitalized its Catholic community.

Opened in 1839 to serve Irish laborers, St. Patrick’s had just one Sunday Mass when Puleo arrived seven years ago. Now it’s up to three, two of which are in Spanish. The noon Mass fills every pew, Puleo said. He had to install a plastic shield along the front of the church’s once-empty balcony to make sure little kids didn’t tumble off of it.

Milagros Rivera sings in the church choir and when she arrived Thursday night she hoped music would provide a little comfort. But she wasn’t counting on it.

“It’s like you feel like you want to do something,” she said. “But you’re so far away that you can’t do nothing. Just wait.”

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