By Liz Fisher
Special to The CS&T
Faith. Identity. Love. Family.
These attributes were planted in St. Veronica Parish when it was founded in 1872, and they remain intact, say its members.
The faces have changed over the nearly 140 years St. Veronica has shined its beacon from 6th and Tioga Streets in the heart of North Philadelphia. Established by Irish immigrants, the parish, like so many in Philadelphia, eventually served the faithful from all ethnic backgrounds.
Today, St. Veronica serves the Hispanic population – most hailing from Puerto Rico – and several African-American and Filipino families. But the hand of God has held the congregation together and created a seemingly unbreakable spirit, said Father Eduardo Coll, I.V.E., pastor of St. Veronica’s for the past 13 years.
Today, the church and school serve as islands of joy in the midst of a crime-ridden neighborhood where drugs and violence take their toll on the young. If his ministry is a challenge, it bears fruit because of the sacrifices his flock makes to support the church and keep the school afloat, Father Coll said.
“We trust in God,” he said. “It is a miracle to have our church open and our people practicing, but they continue to demonstrate their Catholic faith in a very inspiring way.”
Another “miracle,” Father Coll said, is that the parish school has survived another year, while other schools, such as St. Hugh of Cluny and Ascension of our Lord, are closing in June.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Mary Anne Bolger, the school principal, said when she came to the school two years ago she was warned that because of the economy she should be prepared to lose as many as 25 students, which could have spelled the end for St. Veronica School. But over time, only eight students left. The current count of 160 is expected to break 200 because scores of St. Hugh students will likely transfer to St. Veronica’s in the fall.
“This is a joyful school filled with vibrant students and devoted parents who struggle to pay the $2,500 tuition so their children can get a good education and learn their faith,” Sister Bolger said.
Before moving to St. Veronica’s, she served at schools in Virginia Beach, in both South Philadelphia and Southwest Philadelphia, and at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Croydon. Moving into her current post was the realization of a long-held desire because her great aunt also taught at the school, she said.
Sister Bolger believes a Catholic school has its own culture, a culture the children need to immerse themselves in to succeed. When God is not a priority for the faculty and the students, things change, and not for the better, she said.
Sister Bolger added that in all her teaching years, she has never seen a faculty like the one she works with now.
“I have never experienced such a wonderful, giving faculty that has such love for our children, and I don’t think I’ll ever experience it again,” she said.
Along with its rock-solid commitment to God, St. Veronica’s gets a boost from its sister parish, SS. Simon and Jude in West Chester, which provides support to the inner-city parish through its collections. There’s also a deep bond of friendship and sharing between the congregations as the pastors trade pulpits twice a year, and parishioners host social events to get to know their “sister.”
One member of SS. Simon and Jude has become so committed to the continued existence of St. Veronica’s that she’s producing a documentary about parish life.
Hollie McDonald, who works in banking and is president of the Catholic Business Network of Philadelphia, has been recording various aspects of parish life to both preserve its history and to ensure its survival. She is also hoping to help raise money for an endowment fund.
“Hollie is determined to work hard to keep our school open,” Sister Bolger said.
McDonald finished the filming of the school’s recent May Procession, and she said the reaction of those who watched it demonstrated both the spirit of the school and the intercession of the Blessed Mother. McDonald accompanied the fourth-grade students as they walked through the streets praying the rosary.
“I told the kids to wave to the people and they did,” she said. “I saw looks of despair and depression change to smiles as people waved back and blessed themselves. We have to stop being reactive [to communities in need] and become proactive.”
The documentary will premiere – red carpet and all – at St. Veronica Church in September. It will then be posted on YouTube and “hopefully go viral,” McDonald said.
Sister Mary Anne said if there’s anyone who can give witness to the fact that St. Veronica is an outstanding example of faith in action, it’s Pat Layton, who has taught at the school while neighborhood demographics have changed and the needs of parish families have intensified.
Layton started teaching there in 1972, left for a few years to raise her children, then returned in 1994.
“Our children know how much we are loved,” said Layton. “We’ve had so many success stories. State Rep. Angel Cruz is one of our graduates. We’ve had students go to the University of Pennsylvania on scholarships. Oh, yes, we have a proud identity.”
Elizabeth Fisher is a freelance journalist and member of St. Mark Parish in Bristol.