By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer

WILLOW GROVE – The distance between the parishes of St. David in Willow Grove and St. David in New Orleans is nearly 1,250 miles, but from July 27-31, there was nothing separating the sister parishes.

Although their friendship spans five years, members of both parishes met for the first time when the New Orleans’ contingent traveled to the Philadelphia Archdiocese to thank their Willow Grove peers in person. {{more}}

“The brotherly love of Philadelphia is awesome,” said Irene Young of New Orleans.

The parishes forged a friendship in 2003 when the former principal at St. David School was researching other parishes in the United States that had the same namesake, St. David of Wales. The New Orleans parish was the only one that Sister Rita Louise, I.H.M., found.

The parish has received the prayers and support from its Willow Grove counterpart since the church and school – as well as some of the parishioners’ homes – were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina three years ago this month.

Young was one of 14 parishioners – along with their pastor, Josephite Father Joseph J. Campion – who traveled nearly 20 hours by van to Philadelphia.

When the two vans bearing Louisiana license plates rolled onto St. David’s parking lot in the early evening of July 27, the Willow Grove pastor, Msgr. Richard T. Bolger, and a crowd of his parishioners cheered.

“It was almost like stepping into heaven,” Young said.

And that was just the first of their four-day, red-carpet treatment, Christine DeCuir said: “We were treated like kings and queens.”

But the New Orleans parishioners were determined to help others while they were visiting. During their first full day in the Archdiocese, they volunteered at St. John’s Hospice in Philadelphia, an emergency residential facility for men that also provides noon meals, clothing and services to the homeless. Their Willow Grove peers worked with them side by side.

DeCuir said that helping out at St. John’s Hospice was her way of saying, “never give up.” It is counsel from her own experience: Katrina destroyed the first floor of DeCuir’s two-story home in New Orleans.

“This disaster has taught us to be strong, to be faithful, to know that God is here for us and that He will never leave us orphans,” she said.

While they were in the area, the New Orleans pilgrims also visited two national shrines – St. John Neumann in Philadelphia and St. Katharine Drexel in Bensalem.

Young and her husband, Stephen Sr., accompanied by their 13-year-old son, Stephen Jr., were particularly moved by St. Katharine Drexel’s shrine. The couple’s devotion to the saint traces back to the place they met – Xavier University in New Orleans, which St. Katharine founded. A sense of serenity came over Irene Young as she prayed at the tomb of St. Katharine, she said.

Stephen Sr. said he is grateful to the saint for his education, and for his wife and son.

Hurricane Katrina ripped the roof off the back of the Young house, but it didn’t damage their faith.

“Jesus’ message to all of us is, we should help one another, we should love one another,” Stephen Sr. said.

Msgr. Bolger was proud but not surprised by the hospitality his parishioners provided to the members of their sister parish.

“It was so much fun,” said Jenny Mars, a member of the Willow Grove parish. “They’re people that could be very bitter – but they’re just God-loving and kind, praising the Lord all the time.”

On the pilgrims’ final day, Msgr. Bolger and Father Campion, concelebrated a 9 a.m. Mass in St. David’s Chapel, Willow Grove.

“You’re written right here on the heart,” Father Campion said at the farewell reception following the Mass.

“Trust me, there’ll be a lot said in the Lower Ninth Ward about the goodness and the kindness of the hearts of the people here in Willow Grove.”

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine can be reached at (215) 587-2468 or