Soon, it will all come full circle. Soon, there will just be one.
Beginning Sunday, St. Vincent de Paul Church in Germantown will be the only Catholic parish that sits squarely inside the historic Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood.
St. Francis of Assisi and Immaculate Conception, two nearby parishes with dwindling membership and low attendance at Mass, will both close for good and merge with St. Vincent as part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Pastoral Planning Initiative, an effort aimed, in part, at addressing budgetary woes.
“There’s a piece of it where the handwriting was on the wall,” said Rev. Charles Strollo of Immaculate Conception.
It was time
Neither parish, both of which were “heavily” subsidized by the Archdiocese, filed an appeal.
The merger, approved by Archbishop Charles Chaput in mid-April, ends a combined 200-plus years of history between St. Francis and Immaculate Conception that begins with a period when Germantown had a sizable Irish population.
It also signals a homecoming of sorts. Each parish was formed as an offshoot of St. Vincent — referred to as Germantown’s mother church — at the very end of the 19th Century and early 20th century respectively.
All three parishes are part of the Vincentian Charism, which refers to the teachings of St. Vincent. A deep commitment to serving the poor is perhaps the trio’s most pronounced bond. The French-born saint also advocated strongly for collaboration.
“That will hopefully create a smooth transition,” said St. Vincent’s outgoing Rev. Richard Rock. “Deep down, I think that’s what everyone wants.”
A reunion, but with new leadership
The children, though, have each grown up considerably in their time away. Returning to their roots will, by all accounts, prove to be a challenging task for St. Vincent’s incoming Rev. Sylvester Peterka, who is leaving behind two parishes in Baltimore to serve in Philadelphia.
In broad terms, St. Francis and Immaculate Conception have each cultivated very tight-knit congregations akin to a family, said Rev. Timothy Lyons, a resident at St. Francis who will serve alongside Perterka as St. Vincent’s parochial vicar.
Part of St. Francis and Immaculate Conception’s dynamic is by default. Each parish has witnessed significant declines in membership over the years.
As of 2010, the last year for which statistics were available through the Archdiocese, 225 families called Immaculate Conception’s massive stone church at 1020 E. Price St. home. There were 130 more families in 2006.
Over that same stretch, St. Francis, which sits at the corner of Greene and Logan sts., saw a more dramatic drop-off, from 425 in 2006 to 190 in 2010.
By comparison, St. Vincent’s population has largely held steady. There are currently about 425 registered families on the books, estimated one staffer.
“[St. Vincent] was always more than just a neighborhood church,” said Lyons.
A social-justice champion and good neighbor
St. Vincent is well-known for its diverse community, its social consciousness and its commitment to social justice issues inside and outside of its East Price Street location.
While its church is certainly a place to worship, it has also become a place of refuge for its neighbors.
The church most notably houses Face to Face, a hospitality organization that, among other things, serves up hundreds of meals for anyone in need and provides drop-in legal services, on-site social workers and an arts and writing program.
St. Vincent also maintains the St. Vincent de Paul Youth and Young Adult Center, which sits across the street from St. Francis. Rev. Lyons has directed the center for the last three years.
For his part, Rock said he doesn’t think the scope of his former parish will present a problem.
“Social justice is part of the Catholic Church,” he said, noting that the focus really should be centered on creating an entirely new entity that truly unites parishioners.
“It’s building on the gifts of each parish,” said Rock. “It’s not saying, ‘this is what we do here. It can work if everyone works together.”
Lyons echoed Rock’s sentiments.
“Each group has something else the other needs,” he said.
It’s not clear at this point how many parishioners from St. Francis and Immaculate Conception agree.
Sunday’s mass St. Vincent will be the parish’s first post-merger service. Rock will already be in his home state of New York by then. He’s signed on with St. John University, campus ministry.
Strollo, who is heading to a parish in North Carolina, said he’d be in attendance.
“It’s really important for me to accompany [my parishioners],” he said.
It’s also not clear at this point how many parishioners from St. Francis and Immaculate Conception have signed on the become part of the newly formed St. Vincent de Paul Church.
Neither parish will be maintained as a worship site, according to the Archdiocese, since both churches “require serious physical improvements for which the parishes have no funds.”
“Any type of change is tough,” said Rock. “As tough as it, we still want to be church.”