By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – At age 93, Bernice Infante, who lives alone in St. Helena Parish in the Olney section of the city, is hard put to meet ordinary living expenses on her small Social Security pension, let alone tackle household repairs.

“I didn’t have heat for two weeks and Msgr. Trinh got people to put in new thermostats. I only paid for the thermostats not for the work,” she said.

The group is called St. Joseph the Workers. It started out last spring as a way for St. Helena Parish to save money by utilizing the skills of parishioners for ordinary maintenance and repairs. It’s grown to something more, and now it also assists mostly elderly or shut-in parishioners who need basic home repairs.

“We started on May 1, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker,” said Msgr. Joseph T. Trinh, pastor of St. Helena. “For the past two years we’ve been using parishioners for work to save money, and I thought why not formalize the group,” he said. “The primary purpose was to maintain the church buildings. We have six different buildings. Now we have 50-plus men and they are in different groups: painters, heating and air-conditioning, electrical, flooring and general work. They are all certified workers.”

In addition to doing the actual work, there is a monthly Holy Hour as well as a special prayer to St. Joseph that the members recite daily.

Like Msgr. Trinh, almost all of the members of the parish society are Vietnamese, including Dave Nguyen, who is a hardwood floor installer and refinisher by trade. About 70 percent of the work is for the parish, either in the church, the rectory, the convent or the school and about 30 percent for the mostly elderly residents in need, he estimates.

“Either Msgr. Trinh or Father Steve (Perzan) tell us about them and we go and look. If it’s something we can do, we take care of it. There is never a charge for the labor, and only a charge for parts or materials if the person can pay.”

Some of the needs are beyond the St. Joseph men’s expertise. For example, Infante is badly in need of roof repair but no one in the group is a roofer.

There are many things they can do; for example replace an electrical outlet, repair a washing machine, fix a toilet, just to name a few recent jobs.

While the volunteer workers are Vietnamese, most of the residents assisted are American-born, but elderly and poor.

“I put my talents to work with this group and go to the houses of poor people,” said Henry Tran, whose craft is HVAC (heating, air-conditioning and plumbing). “We will go out at any hour of the day or night if we are needed. When we go to a house they feel that God has touched their life, and we feel God comes to us too.”

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