By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – The men’s club at Sacred Heart Parish in South Philadelphia is into renewal. Outwardly, that means refurbishing 19th century buildings, but far more important, it means renewing faith among its members and their families.

What makes the parish story compelling is that, on the surface it would seem an unlikely candidate for renewal. First of all, when I-95 was constructed almost a half a century ago, as in the case of many other Delaware River waterfront parishes, a fair number of homes were erased from the map. Also, much of the industry that sustained the families for generations gradually disappeared. Sacred Heart was a dwindling parish.

“I thought the parish would close, we would lose it,” said Ed O’Malley, who for the past 67 years has lived in the same Moyamensing Avenue house that has been in his wife Kathleen’s family since her great-grandfather’s day in the Civil War era. “I’ve never seen anything like the men’s club.”

It started almost three years ago.

“A couple of us thought it might be a good idea to form a men’s club,” said parishioner Tom Betteridge.

“We asked Father (William) Dean to be our spiritual director and we went to our pastor Father (Michael) Sheehan with the idea. On Father’s Day I got up and spoke at all of the Masses. I said, ‘We have a lot of things in the community we are proud of – our Mummers clubs, our unions and our heritage. It was time to show we are proud to be Catholic.'”

That first appeal drew 85 men and since then the club has grown to about 130 members, Betteridge said. Like him many are members of the Local 98 Electricians’ Union. He estimates South Philadelphia is home to about 400 electricians. In keeping with the neighborhood demographic very few members of the club are white collar. Typical of the building trades, most members have a working knowledge of other trades in addition to their specialty.

A major project now nearing completion was the painting of the church itself, meticulously done by volunteer labor. The economic recession has been a help.

“A lot of the men are unemployed right now and have their days free,” Betteridge said. “Instead of hanging around the house watching television they come here and give their day time to the Church.”

“Enthusiasm goes a long way. It is catching,” Father Sheehan said. “They’ve done an excellent job in repainting the interior through the contribution of labor, and there has been an increase in the faith of the people.”

In addition to the renovations the membership works on fundraising for materials and other expenses, and through their building trade connections, obtains donated supplies.

Mike Connell, who is the club president, is not a craft member, he’s a caterer. But that helps too. Whenever there is a fundraiser his family does all the cooking, which saves a big expense.

Connell, unlike most of the members is not originally from the area. “I’m from Bensalem, I married a South Philly girl and here I am,” he said.

As for the success of the club, he tells parishioners, “You are the success. We only got the ball rolling, you pushed it down the hill.”

Through donated labor and fundraising the men’s club has gotten the parish off life support, Connell said. But he tells the men, “We can raise all the money we want, the bottom line is ‘Come to church.'”

Brian Donnelly, a funeral director and facilitator for the work, is also a relative newcomer, in the parish only eight years.

“This is a great boost to the community, and it is bringing us a long way. Our Sunday attendance is up, and we are getting a lot of young people,” he said.

Other work includes a total renovation of the long-unused cavernous church basement into space for various youth and adult parish activities and meeting rooms. The club will also continue with needed work in the convent.

“The toughest part is raising the money,” Donnelly said. “A few area businesses have put in money and some families have paid for sections of the painting. We have a lot of history and families here for generations, and everyone is stepping up to the plate.”

A point of pride in an era of declining enrollment, Sacred Heart School has just 10 fewer children than it did a decade ago, and the men’s club has been active in soliciting students and raising funds for the school.

“It’s wonderful, it’s a real boost of energy,” said school principal Immaculate Heart Sister Patricia Maureen, who was raised in the parish. “These guys have certainly revitalized the parish, and hopefully, the energy will continue.”

Dan Caputo, at 26, is a younger member of the group and an electrician. He said membership in the club has gotten him going to church on a regular basis. “The club is a good thing to be part of, and it’s good for the community,” he said. “Nothing but good can come out of this. When you have time you can give good things to the Church and the community.”

Steve Ribikauskas, 32, also a member of Local 98, said he has lived in Sacred Heart all his life, but he too had gotten away from church attendance.

“Now I have four little ones, and I want to come back and raise them Catholic, like I was raised,” he said. “I want them to go to Catholic school where I went to school. I want to help bring it back the way it used to be. I help out doing whatever I can do.”

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