This month several parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are welcoming new pastors and celebrating the installation ceremonies.
One such parish is St. Ambrose, which for nearly a century has served its lower Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood and served as a Catholic landmark on the southern end of Roosevelt Boulevard.
The installation of Father Charles Ravert as pastor of St. Ambrose on Sunday, Sept. 12, with Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fitzgerald presiding, was remarkable because most parishioners never thought it would happen.
Mass attendance had been light for years, religious education had dwindled, the school had closed years earlier and ministries were few. It was all due to the reality of a changing neighborhood with fewer practicing Catholics – a trend mirrored in numerous communities in the Philadelphia region.
Parishioners were convinced or at least suspected the parish would close in July 2020 after the retirement of their longtime pastor, Father James Catagnus.
Parish staff resigned to seek other work, and parish buildings were sold.
But there were seeds and some sprouts of growth, signs of hope for a possible future: the sale of unneeded buildings would provide for financial stability, and the number of Spanish-speaking Catholics including many young families from the neighborhood was growing.
Still, when Father Ravert arrived as the newly assigned administrator last July, it came as a surprise to parishioners.
As the young priest, ordained in 2014, arrived he saw about 25 faithful attending a Saturday evening and one Mass on Sunday, and about double that for one Spanish Mass.
And he had nowhere to lay his head at the end of the day. The rectory and convent had been sold.
So with blankets to sleep on the floor and a fan to combat the July heat, he set up home in a classroom of the 1960s-era junior high school building for the first two weeks until volunteers rehabbed the space into living rooms.
He then got to work ministering to his parish, getting to know people, offering the sacraments, forging relationships.
“It’s been a crazy year and a half,” Father Ravert said of his new assignment in which he was “here to bring a message of hope, that it was not the end but a new beginning.”
In the midst of the pandemic’s restrictions and rampant rumors of closure, Father Ravert detected “a spiritual depression” among the people, “and they stayed away,” he said.
He began to employ his youthful energy, boundless enthusiasm and Spanish language skills to inject new life into the parish.
Longtime director of religious education Elaine Potalivo had found a new position, but stayed on to help the new pastor in transition. Last June he hired Theresa Brown as coordinator of the Parish Religious Education Program.
“It’s an exciting time” at St. Ambrose, Brown said before the installation Mass. “Father Charles is very enthusiastic. He’s young with a lot of energy.”
She was expecting about 60 PREP students this year after registration the following night, Sept. 13.
“We couldn’t do (PREP) last year because of COVID,” she said. “Now that we have a new pastor he wanted to get a new program off the ground after a year of being away from it, with the shut downs. I’m looking forward to meeting more of the children. It looks like it’s going to be good.”
Another outreach to youth is starting at St. Ambrose thanks to another new hire a year ago, a young woman who first joined the St. Ambrose family as a kindergartener.
Father Ravert’s youthful age is “what this church needed the most,” said Jamileth Tejada, youth minister for about 10 kids so far. “Father Charles has (attracted) a lot of the younger people. We have a lot of the young community.”
“There are definitely more people coming to church now, including new members,” Tejada said.
The numbers prove what Tejada is seeing. Those two dozen participants at weekend Masses have grown to some 200, and the 50 Spanish speakers at one weekly Mass have grown to standing room only, according to the pastor.
For older parishioners who have seen big swings in population and demographics for more than half a century, the revival of St. Ambrose is encouraging.
Lifelong member Josephine Lavorini praised the work of her new pastor because “he involves many members of the parish in activities. He actively seeks out and embraced people who were working here previously. He welcomes everybody,” she said.
Frank Tigue, also a parishioner for more than 40 years, said he hopes the parish stays open. “It’s a stabilizing factor in a changing neighborhood, and it’s comforting,” he said.
The diversity of youth and experience with a mix of ethnic cultures among the approximately 1,200 registered members of the parish was evident in the installation Mass last Sunday.
Spanish alternated with English for all the prayers, Scripture readings, remarks and even the homily by Bishop Fitzgerald. The general intercessions were offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, French and Qeq’vhi, the language of native Mayan people of Guatemala who reside in the parish.
The Mass, which Father Ravert described as a “celebration of what the community has accomplished with God’s grace over the past year,” celebrated what he referred to as the parish’s “thriving renewal.”
Spanish and English choirs intoned beautiful sacred music leading more than 200 people during the Mass that included an emotional moment when Father Ravert, greeting parish representatives, tearfully and tenderly embraced retired Permanent Deacon Jose Mendez, beloved by parishioners for his 32 years of service at St. Ambrose.
After Mass, Father Ravert thanked many people, including his mother Eleanor, whom he called “my first friend and my best friend,” and without whom “I would never know about the love of God.”
Although he had many times driven from his first priestly assignment at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bensalem down Roosevelt Boulevard past St. Ambrose on the way to his family home in Manayunk, he was pleased to make the parish his new home.
He thanked the parishioners – even speaking in Vietnamese, to the approving nods of some faithful — for their “generous spirit and loving support which strengthens my spirit every week. Thank you for making part of your family here at St. Ambrose,” Father Ravert said. “I can’t wait to see what God has in store for us in the years ahead.”
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