By Christie L. Chicoine

CS&T Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA – When hospice patient John Semanik was granted a special “gift of a day” by his hospice caretakers, his wife Mary suggested Mass at his beloved Holy Ghost Byzantine Church in South Philadelphia.

“His church has been a very central part of his life all of his life,” Mary said. “I just couldn’t think of anything that would be better.”

In conjunction with Father Edward J. Higgins, pastor of Holy Ghost, Crossroads Hospice in Horsham coordinated the arrangements for John to attend the 9 a.m. Mass Sunday, Nov. 16 at the church.

“The parish is like a family,” Father Higgins said of Holy Ghost, founded in 1891 for immigrants from the eastern sector of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from cities and villages that now spread among Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Slovakia.

That “family” today includes a variety of ethnic groups and extends beyond South Philadelphia to other parts of Pennsylvania and into South Jersey and Wilmington, Del., the pastor said.

Father Higgins appreciates his parishioners’ commitment to the faith and the distances they travel to worship there, “where heaven and earth meet,” he said.

A lifelong parishioner at Holy Ghost, John Semanik, 78, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six years ago. For the past year, he has been residing at Highgate at Paoli Pointe, an assisted living facility in Paoli. Because of his deteriorating condition, he had not been to the church for several months.

Semanik has been a devoted member of his church, the pastor said. For years, he sang in the choir, went Christmas caroling at parishioners’ homes with other choir members, participated in the church’s Christmas plays and rolled dough for its holiday baking projects – pierogi and kolach in particular. He has also served on the advisory board of the parish’s religious education program and as a member of the Holy Name Society.

“He was well-rounded in parish life,” Father Higgins said, noting also Semanik’s devotion to the prayer life of the parish.

“The fact that he went there for 78 years says a lot,” Mary said of her husband’s devotion to Holy Ghost Church. “He was very much a part of that church.”

John and Mary were married at Holy Ghost 38 years ago. They met when he was director of men’s athletics and she was director of women’s athletics at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Although they settled in the Valley Forge area, John remained a parishioner at Holy Ghost.

“They say if a girl wants to pick a good husband, she should look at the way he treats his mother,” Mary said. “John helped to take care of his mother with a great deal of care and love,” she said. In fact, even after John and Mary married and moved to the Valley Forge area, John faithfully checked on his mother in her South Philadelphia home before he began his workday at Drexel. He helped his mother out of bed, dressed her, prepared her breakfast and spent his lunch hour with her until her death in 1975.

“He’s a good husband and he deserves the best care we can give him,” Mary said. “His family loves him, I love him and we all try very hard to look after him the best we can.”

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at