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Christianity in Philadelphia’s inner city

By NCR Staff

However stressful ecclesial politics might be in some Philadelphia quarters, church happens on the streets, bringing renewal and hope to city neighborhoods.

“People talk about St. Vincent here as if they’d had supper with him last night,” said St. Joseph Sr. Eileen Smith of St. Vincent’s parish in Germantown. The parish, operated by Vincentian priests, is named for St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th-century French priest noted for his work among the poor.

Smith collaborates with a priest and four paid members of the laity, overseeing what she calls “kitchen table ministry” in Germantown, a neighborhood where blocks of gracious old homes alternate with blocks of blight. Parish outreach includes a weekend meal program that serves hundreds, legal and health clinics, summer camp and art-related activities directed by visiting artists. Volunteers have helped rehabilitate some 30 houses, turning them into rentals for single mothers and their children.

The parish programs, unusual in the area for their breadth, operate with the help of archdiocesan networks and a broad base of support in the suburbs and even among non-Catholics, Smith said.

Mercy Sr. Mary Scullion, regarded in Philadelphia as an icon for her work with homeless people, heads up Project H.O.M.E. The 10-year-old program has earned a national reputation for its efforts to break the cycle of homelessness by addressing underlying problems: shortage of affordable housing, lack of employment, education and health care.

Sometimes it also involves just going out and inviting the homeless in. Scullion has been known to crawl down utility holes and prowl through alleys in search of people who might need shelter. And sometimes it involves programs for youth. Project H.O.M.E.’s Foot Stompers, an energetic drill team, was the subject of a story in The New York Times in January.

Operating with a staff of 130, including 40 people who were once homeless and hundreds of volunteers, the organization has rehabbed more than 200 housing units for homeless people. Nearly 50 more units will be under construction soon, she said, some to sell to the working poor and others to rent cheaply.

Scullion’s work is so well known today that she attracts big dollars. Rena Rowan, the designer who cofounded Jones New York, has committed to giving $1.5 million for 75 new housing units for homeless women and children, and a foundation agreed to match it. Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Francis, religious orders that operate big hospitals, have given Scullion’s project $1 million each. The Crown Cork and Seal Company, an international can company in Northeast Philadelphia, made a $2.5 million commitment that has helped turn some former Catholic rectories and schools into community and youth centers.

The project has achieved high visibility not only for its ongoing work but also for its political advocacy on behalf of homeless people. “Right now,” Scullion said, “we’re in the midst of organizing.” The reason: a new “sidewalk control bill,” passed by the city council, that makes it illegal to sleep on streets.

Another nun who operates a program independent of the archdiocese, Sr. Carol Keck, said the North Philadelphia area she works in, known as Norris Square, has been negatively affected by parish closings. “As churches have closed, neighborhoods have been left without an anchor,” she said. “Many storefront churches are coming in,” many of them Pentecostal, she said. The lively worship style of Pentecostal churches attracts Latin Americans, she said. “The growth of Pentecostal churches has been phenomenal around here.”

She noted that an evangelization center started by the Philadelphia archdiocese and staffed by a Cuban priest had been effective in keeping some people in the church.

Keck, of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, has been involved for 23 years in the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, first as a teacher and then as principal at a Catholic school in the area, and finally, for the past 10 years, as executive director of the neighborhood project.

The program’s thrust is environmental. Workers have established some 38 gardens, all on city lots. Benefits are multiple. The gardens provide beauty, education, cross-cultural sharing and low-priced food, she said.

Area residents have also collaborated to combat drug sales. Cleaning up vacant lots has significantly reduced the number of hiding places dealers can use, she said. And by working with the city to get empty buildings torn down, residents have eliminated many users’ hangouts. Some 250 volunteers turned out a few years ago to turn part of a six-acre park known as “needle park” into a playground.

Keck looks for the official church to do more. She envisions former Catholic churches, convents and schools being given new life as community centers. “There’s so much potential for the church to become a community development corporation here,” she said. Germantown’s Smith said “cluster planning” sponsored by the Philadelphia archdiocese had been underway for a couple of years. She said she hopes all remaining churches will remain open.

“The limits of finances have to be addressed, but there could be ways of redefining parish life without closing more parishes. I hope we’re learning from mistakes in other places,” she said.

One North Philadelphia parish unscathed by archdiocesan reorganization is St. Malachy’s. Under the leadership of Fr. John McNamee, author of the widely-read Diary of a City Priest, the parish draws city and suburban residents alike to its vibrant liturgies.

If Scullion is an icon, McNamee is a legend. Inspired by the writings of Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit activist noted for his antiwar demonstrations, McNamee has worked in the inner city for more than 30 years, starting out in West Philadelphia.

“I don’t have all the solutions, the answers for them,” McNamee told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996, speaking of his disenfranchised neighbors. “But I will walk with them, search with them and be with them.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 19, 1998