Special to The CS&T

WEST CHESTER – In the typical parish church in Philadelphia, members live in the neighborhood. Their children can walk to school.

In the suburbs, people live at greater distances from the church. The children take buses. Does that sense of separation create less community in the parish?

For six and a half years, Msgr. Nelson Perez was pastor at St. William Parish in the Lawncrest section of the city. Now he is pastor of 3,200 families at St. Agnes Parish in the suburban borough of West Chester.

There are differences in the parishes, of course, but Msgr. Perez also sees many similarities.

Both St. William and St. Agnes parishes have significant Hispanic populations and Hispanic Masses. Both have dedicated men and women committed to God’s work.

“In both parishes people are proud of the parish,” Msgr. Perez said. “They are dedicated to the community, have a deep love of church and are committed to their faith. It makes life a lot easier as a priest to guide and support the people God has placed around us.”

The large Hispanic community plays a big part in the Church’s mission at St. Agnes.

“There is a significant Mexican population,” Msgr. Perez said. “There are about 1,000 families of which about 500 inspaniduals are at Mass on a Sunday. There is a significant presence of Puerto Rican and other Latin American families. They participate in prayer groups and have leadership roles – two are on the parish council. They’re Eucharistic ministers – the full gamut.”

The concerns of these families are the same as most families have now, according to Msgr. Perez. That would be the education of children and employment worries.

“It is a poor community; they have great economic concerns,” Msgr. Perez said. “At the same time, we have parishioners who are very affluent, culturally and economically.”

For the most part, the challenges facing the suburban church in West Chester mirror the challenges of a city parish.

One exception is the distance covered by the parish.

“Our territory is bigger than the borough of West Chester,” Msgr. Perez said. “Most people in St. Agnes live in the surrounding areas, the outlying township.” That means driving to Mass and other church functions.

Msgr. Perez has set simple but powerful goals for his parish. They are the same whether he is serving a city or a suburban constituency.

“By serving the people we are keeping the Church alive,” Msgr. Perez said. “We have an active parish with an incredible variety of ministries and programs.

“Our members have great love for the Church and are very much involved. I want to allow the people to continue to do great work.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.