By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

It is really people helping people.

In 2006, according to a report compiled by the Archdiocese, local parishes assisted 326,721 people. In 2007 that figure climbed to 384,615, and in 2008 a whopping 484,992 inspaniduals were assisted.

Were Catholics responding to greater needs during a deepening recession, or was it just better reporting?

Probably a combination of both, said Robert J. Miller, director of the archdiocesan Office for Research and Planning, which compiled the report based on self-reporting by the parishes.

“It’s a relatively new report and we are still dealing with it. It takes between three and five years for a report to settle in and I’m just starting to feel comfortable with the figures,” he said. “But the current environment would argue the parishes are doing more because people need more.”

If anything, the report at this point isn’t giving the entire breadth of the charitable works done in the parishes. Not every parish reported special outreach programs, and one assumes they were not as the Gospels put it, “hiding their candle under a bushel.” They simply never got around to sending the report, or reporting all of their outreach programs.

The reports breaks social outreach down into a number of categories: food programs, housing programs, addiction services, health related programs, education and enrichment programs, basic needs assistance, socialization and neighborhood services, pregnancy services and other services.

The largest category is the most basic – food services with 175,205 people served in 2008. This could take a number of forms. It could be feeding programs (soup kitchens), home food delivery, a food cupboard for distribution of groceries, holiday distribution, for example baskets at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and food collections for others, usually by parishes that do not have extensive poverty.

Parishes with strong food outreach programs are sometimes in places one would not necessarily expect. For example, St. John the Baptist in Ottsville served 7,650 through their food cupboard. Obviously many if not most are multiple visits by inspaniduals but that is still a very large number.

“We have a real mix of very wealthy to very poor, the need is there,” said the pastor, Father Raymond Diesbourg, M.S.C.

St. John’s program, directed by parishioner Cathy Leidke, is called “The Lord’s Pantry.” Parishioners of the 1,300 household parish bring food to Mass with them weekly and the volunteer-operated pantry is open three days a week.

There is an ecumenical dimension; the local Lutheran congregation and other Protestant congregations are also generous contributors to the pantry. As further outreach, the parish has added a health clinic with volunteer doctors and nurses giving health assessments to visitors to the pantry.

One of the subcategories under education and enrichment programs is pastoral care for migrants and refugees, with 12,286 inspaniduals served, but 10,000 of them are at a single location – Mision Santa Maria Madre de Dios in Avondale, which serves an immigrant and migrant Hispanic population. That’s a round number; is it more than 10,000 or almost 10,000?

“It’s probably close to 12,000 now,” said Msgr. Francis J. Depman, the Mision chaplain. “The numbers keep increasing – the community has a high birth rate with lots of children and lots of young adults.”

In addition to spiritual service, the Mision distributes donated clothing, food, furniture, household items and bedding, with many of the items coming from other parishes throughout the Archdiocese.

The Mision also provides translation services, an important service for people who do not speak English but must cope with immigration matters and other legal issues. It has a dental clinic, does advocacy work for the people and tries to help them find housing or work.

“It’s a challenge that keeps us going seven days a week,” Msgr. Depman said.

The archdiocesan report clearly shows the challenge of addressing the needs of our often needier brethren is being met by Catholic parishioners in all five vicariates of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

It might be a strong bereavement program at Our Lady of Good Counsel, Southampton; thousands of toys collected annually each Christmas at St. Joseph, Aston; thousands of meals delivered to homes at St. Francis of Assisi, Springfield; a strong literacy program at Incarnation of Our Lord in Philadelphia- North; or nursing and health ministry at St. Francis de Sales in Philadelphia-South. The work of the Lord goes on.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.