Babette Henry-Taylor, April Robertson, and Carla Caple-Petty of St. Cyprian Parish in Philadelphia prepare to distribute Christmas gifts to area families, Dec. 15. The initiative is one of several parish outreaches that serve the community year-round. (Photo by Gina Christian)

A West Philadelphia parish is leading the way in making Christmas amid COVID brighter for local families.

Earlier this week, staff and volunteers from St. Cyprian Parish in Philadelphia began distributing bags of wrapped gifts for all ages, including shirts, slacks, pajamas, winter socks, hair ornaments, designer-label children’s clothing – and even a candy-apple-red BMX bicycle.

The items were donated by faithful throughout the Philadelphia Archdiocese as part of an ongoing “sisterhood” of parishes, said organizer Carla Caple-Petty, director of parish outreach services at St. Cyprian.

Those parishes include St. John the Evangelist in Morrisville, St. Robert Bellarmine in Warrington, St. Thomas of Villanova in Rosemont and Villanova, and St. Philip Neri and St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church, both in Philadelphia.

“They collected two gifts for each child,” said Caple-Petty. “Whatever the families put on their lists, they tried to get it for them, and if they couldn’t, they gave them a gift card.”

After months of pandemic, clients were grateful for the helping hand at holiday time.

One couple, parents of 11 children, said they felt “blessed and very thankful.”

April Robertson, a volunteer at St. Cyprian Parish in Philadelphia, shows off a new BMX bicycle donated to the parish’s annual Christmas gift collection, Dec. 15. (Gina Christian)

“It’s most stressful for the kids,” said the mother, noting that adapting to remote learning and limited social interactions has been a difficult task for them all.

At the same time, said her husband, “for the most part, we’re sticking together and pulling together. It’s a great feeling to be here as a unit, as a team, as a family.”

Fostering that sense of community is central to St. Cyprian’s mission, said Caple-Petty.

Named for a North African bishop and martyr, the parish has for two decades operated a food panty to counter food insecurity in the neighborhood, supported by its sister parishes and by agencies such as the Share Food Program, Philabundance and archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services. A group of St. Cyprian volunteers meets weekly to prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for distribution by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services.

Through a collaboration with the city’s Department of Human Services and with the Norristown-based nonprofit Mitzvah Circle, the parish also provides baby formula and diapers, costs for which often overwhelm low-income families.

Along with its food pantry, St. Cyprian hosts a number of vibrant ministries, including the Knights of Peter Claver and the order’s Ladies Auxiliary, hospitality volunteers, liturgical dancers, rosary makers, adult and children’s choirs, greeters, and men’s and women’s groups.

“We have a little bit of everything going on here,” said Caple-Petty.

The parish even has a van ministry to transport elderly and mobility-challenged parishioners, she said.

But COVID has hit the parish hard, said Caple-Petty.

“We’ve had quite a few members pass away from it,” she noted.

As a result, many seniors are unable or reluctant to attend Mass in person, she said, and that loss has been “the biggest downfall for them.”

Although St. Cyprian livestreams its liturgies, the parish’s older adults are “so used to coming, it’s like something’s missing,” she said.

Parishioners and staff look forward to the day when they will again worship in the fullness of St. Cyprian Parish’s motto, “unity, faith, and hope.”

“There’s just nothing like being in your church,” said Caple-Petty.