It was a small item tucked in the middle of the list of new assignments for priests released by the Philadelphia Archdiocese on May 16. Under Special Ministry, Father Joseph P. Devlin, pastor of St. Bridget Parish in Philadelphia and Father William S. Murphy, pastor of Assumption B.V.M. Parish in West Grove, were reassigned as co-coordinators of Mother of Mercy House in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.
A quick check of the Catholic Directory of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia shows no such place as Mother of Mercy House and for good reason. It will not come into being until June 15, when Fathers Devlin and Murphy take up their new ministry.
You could call it a store-front church, but that is not exactly correct.
In the first place it is not a parish; that area is part of sprawling Holy Innocents Parish. And truth to tell, its 801-03 East Allegheny Avenue address was not a store. In more prosperous times it was McGee’s, a thriving neighborhood bar; it was also a word play on the location at the intersection of G Street and Allegheny Avenue.
The opening paragraphs of Mother of Mercy’s mission statement tells the story:
“The mission of Mother of Mercy House, a mission of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is to enhance the presence of the Church through a new outreach to the Kensington and Allegheny (K & A) neighborhood by establishing small ecclesial communities (block churches) formed by Word and Sacrament, forming lay leaders and by serving the neighborhood through the corporal works of mercy.
“This new mission is enflamed by Pope Francis’ theology which reminds us that our ‘loving God, poor among the poor, reserved for them a privileged place in Christ’s life and ministry.’”
As a bit of background, Kensington, which traces back to the early 19th century, was historically a working class neighborhood primarily in the textile industries. The earliest workers were English but over time Irish Catholics became the dominant ethnic group, which of course brought churches, among them the huge Ascension Church at Westmoreland and F Streets.
By mid-20th century the neighborhood began to change as the mills, which were its life blood, gradually closed or relocated to such places as the southern states and eventually China in search of cheap labor.
Most of the workers also moved away, and with rampant unemployment as often happens in such neighborhoods, today’s Kensington while more ethnically diverse has become became a center for poverty. With poverty comes the despair that leads to crime, substance abuse and other social Ills.
In 2012 Ascension Parish, whose dwindling congregation worshiped in a huge church in need of daunting repairs, closed.
At the May convocation of priests held that year in Hershey, Pa., Archbishop Charles Chaput brought up the problem of serving the remaining Catholics in parishes like Ascension where much of the energy was being spent on keeping up buildings that were no longer needed. He challenged his priests to come up with solutions.
Independent of each other, both Father Devlin and Father Murphy immediately volunteered to minister in the area. Now three years later, their request has been granted and temporarily until Mother of Mercy House is ready for occupancy, they will be living in the convent of the former St. Joan of Arc Parish.
As Father Murphy explained in the parish bulletin at his present parish: “The archbishop stated that the priests and the people of God need to discover new ways of being church, a church less tethered to huge buildings or institutions. He suggested the possibility of storefront churches, that is, being present in neighborhoods as church in a simpler but more profound way.”
At St. Bridget, Father Devlin wrote when he told the flock he is leaving: “I truly believe this is one of the places Jesus would be. K & A is poor, densely populated and needy. The archdiocese through its ministry of priests should be more visibly present in such a neighborhood. If you have been reading anything from Pope Francis over these past two years, you will know what I mean. The Holy Father is constantly challenging the church to go to the margins of society, to greater service of those who are poor and often forgotten by society. K & A is that kind of neighborhood.”
Actually there is already a continued presence of the church in a more modest way. At Holy Innocents Parish, which has had to absorb Ascension as well as neighboring Mater Dolorosa, St. Joachim and St. Joan of Arc parishes through mergers, Father Thomas Higgins sends a bus every Sunday into Kensington to pick up parishioners who might not have other means to reach his church.
“Father Murphy and Father Devlin will have their hands full,” Father Higgins said. “We will do what we can to help them.”
Also there is a Catholic presence in the neighborhoods through such programs as the Franciscan-run St. Francis Inn on Kensington Avenue and the Welcome Center, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, on Allegheny Avenue, among others.
They present the Gospel of Jesus Christ with Christian compassion primarily through social outreach and are conducted by religious congregations independent of the archdiocese.
Mother of Mercy House will be unique in that it will be led by diocesan priests, and while not a parish, pastoral care will be equally emphasized with programs that meet material needs.
As the mission statement explains, “Those who are materially, spiritually and humanly poor are not the focus of special attention because they are an economic, social or pastoral problem, but because the loving God, poor among the poor, reserved for them a privileged place in Christ’s life and ministry.”
Father Devlin and Father Murphy point to the words of Pope Francis for their inspiration:
“Let us go forth … to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of a friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” “The Joy of the Gospel,” no. 49)
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This is a great idea but certainty isn’t enough to cover the need once served by 4 parishes.
I was born in Kensington and lived there until 1971.I have wonderful memories of those years. I am thrilled that this new endeaver by the Catholic Church is taking place in my old neighborhood.I believe this is exactly what the Catholic Church needs — to be reaching out beyound the traditional Catholic Churches. I wish these two priests the best and will be prayng for their success.
My grandparents and parents grew up in the K&A area. Grandmom lived on Aramingo for 60 something years until she passed in 2002. It would make her happy if I contributed in some way. In addition to prayers, please post address for donations.
Thanks to Fathers Devlin and Murphy for their generous service. I will pray for the success of their work.
Sister Jean Liston, GNSH
Father Bill Murphy helped me to start the St. Agnes Day Room in West Chester (now the Dorothy Day Ministry Center). He was transferred before our outreach to the poor officially began. So glad he is now able to return to this beautiful work. Wishing him great Joy in the service of those most in need of the love of Christ!
Director of Outreach Services
Saint Agnes Parish, West Chester
A Church with beautiful feet! So excited for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be preached in this neighborhood by word and deed.
God be with you in your new assignment, Fathers Devlin & Murphy! Be assured of our prayer support.
We will miss you Father Murphy but know you are right where God wants you and that the Holy Spirit will give you all the gifts you both need to minister to His people. Proud to say I’m catholic and that you both are representing our catholic faith! ABVM parishioner
Dear Father I live a cross the street from mother Mercy House I will take visit time after time for prayers. thank you father Gerry
More “Social Justice ” which takes our resources from poor Catholics trying to attend Mass and do good. Isn’t this the Father Murphy that the last Sunday at his old parish St. Patrick in Norristown He canceled the English Mass but had the Spanish Mass? I am sure, and doesn’t this show his real prejudice. He said he couldn’t do both on the Last Sunday. A wild suggestion Keep the Latin Mass so everyone feels welcomed and if they really cared would make the effort we did as young Catholics and understand the Latin Mass without favoring 1 group over another!!
Your remarks are not really Jesus’ idea of love God & love others……which these 2 priests are clearly showing us how to do….look into your heart and find ways to think of others…….I don’t think Jesus would want the Mass said in a language that most people do not understand nor need to learn.
What a strange comment about St. Patrick’s and Father Murphy. He did a great job here. Ministering to the sheep you have is not showing “real prejudice.” We have two English language Masses and three Spanish language Masses at our parish. Social justice is what the church should focus on – that’s where real evangelization can occur. Cloaking ourselves in comfortable Latin of the past…and looking back with rose colored glasses to the times where the priest showed his back to the congregation and we were just spectators…this is not the Catholic church of today. Celebrate the creativity and courage of these disciples of Jesus. Follow what Pope Francis has to say. Look forward, not back. Adelante!
How can I be of service?
Thank you, Fathers Devlin and Murphy, for your commitment to the people in this area that was once so staunchly Catholic. I taught at nearby St. Hugh’s School back in the 50’s and have never forgotten those children and their parents. Despite changes in the neighborhood over the years there must be a remnant of the strong faith I experienced there so long ago. You are in my prayers and hope to hear more about Mother of Mercy.
The Pope has been an answer to prayer and the diocese has started to see how vital this type of Church is and it is what Church is all about. The people will support this physically, monetarily and spiritually..so glad I have lived to see it happen…ask for the help you need and you will receive it.
Bravo to Archbishop Chaput, and to these priests. There is also another outreach Philadelphia, in the St. Charles Borromeo and St. Michael’s parish territory, requested by the archbishop. Two Missio ad Gentes (Mission to the Peoples) from the Neocatechumenal Way, which consist of 4-5 families from all over the world with their children, several single men and women, and a priest have moved into these depressed areas to help live out a Catholic Christian lifestyle reflecting the love of God for all His children, and inviting all their neighbors to experience this love. They do this through personal outreach, prayer, and catechesis. The courage and love needed for these outreaches can come only from the heart of Christ. God bless you all.
This is similar to the Police Community outreach Programs Good Idea!
A Collar seen on the streets can re-plant the seed of conversion that Jesus can nurture.
God Bless YOU both..
Profound thanks to the Archdiocese and the two founding Fathers who will be making Jesus present in a new way at K&A. Very creative example of the new evangelization that Pope Francis has been encouraging. Maybe Pope Francis might have time to stop by, causing a flash mob who hopefully would contribute time, talents and treasure to help the Mother of Mercy House flourish.
Having lived and worked in Ascension of Our Lord parish, this mission is the answer to a prayer.
how can i donate to the Mother of Mercy House?
thank you so much for responding so generously and so creatively to the needs of the poor, or rather the needs of the people of God who live in the city! I’m sure our loving and merciful God will bless you abundantly! My prayers for energy and strength!
This is a wonderful idea and hopefully is indicative of the future.