The morning of Sunday June 24th dawned bright blue in Germantown, though hot enough that churchgoers sweated under their formal clothes as they streamed toward St. Francis of Assisi Church.
Police SUVs were parked near the intersection of Greene and Logan, where St. Francis’ domed steeple looms over the handsome rowhouses and stepped Victorian twins that comprise the neighborhood. Shuttle buses filled with attendees crept through the slight, inclined streets packed with cars. Notably, many bore New York, New Jersey and Delaware plates.
A middle-aged woman in her Sunday best, smoking a cigarette, called out to one of the officers minding the procession streaming towards the church.
“Look at this handsome cop! Can you believe how handsome this guy is?” she said as she embraced the gray-haired police officer.
Roots run deep for the morning’s worshipers. Most grew up in the neighborhood in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when this section near Wayne Junction, known to some as the Brickyard, was a working-class Irish and Italian area dotted with several Catholic institutions.
As people grouped around the steps of the church, there was the atmosphere of a high school reunion, as former neighbors and old friends embraced after decades apart, and prepared for a mass that would see every pew occupied for the first time in recent memory.
But the reason for their assembly was a somber one. The St. Francis of Assisi Parish was holding its final mass after 113 years of ministry, as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia prepares to merge St. Francis and nearby Immaculate Conception into St. Vincent de Paul, on the other side of the neighborhood. According to the Diocese, St. Francis’ parish population fell 73% between 2006 and 2010, with just over 100 adherents regularly attending weekend mass in the massive church building.
The neighborhood has been increasingly populated with black residents of a generally Protestant background. They replaced the predominantly white, Catholic population whose departure from the Philadelphia (along with the aging of those who stayed) greatly diminished the parish population in recent decades.
Feelings amongst the alumni were of sadness and nostalgia, but certainly not surprise.
“There’s dwindling people in this parish while some of the parishes in the suburbs are expanding. But it’s still sad, it’s history,” said Ed O’Neill, of Cape May, who lived on Sylvania St. until 1978.
“I lived here and I loved this place. This is where people came close to Christ, came close as a community. This was a thriving community and everybody knew everybody. It was totally unlike today where people don’t even know their neighbors,” he added.
Susan Landers, who lived on Wyneva St. into the 1980s and now resides in Brooklyn, says that although she is not a practicing Catholic today, her experience at the church shaped her sense of morality.
“I feel like it really shaped my ethos and was a big contributor to my sense of social justice. The teachings I heard as a child were very much of doing unto others as you would have done unto you, the importance of taking care of the sick and the poor, the aged and the infirm,” said Landers.
Landers recalled her neighborhood as “lower income” and said that the parish was already shrinking and aging during her childhood in the 70s.
“These were morals that came from Catholicism and were particularly resonant for me in that neighborhood. It wasn’t empty rhetoric; there were lots of poor people, there were lots of sick people and they needed assistance, and the church was saying we should treat them like we want to be treated ourselves. That was really important to me,” she said.
The church’s few current parishioners regarded the closing with a much more powerful sense of loss and even anger.
“Most of the people feel betrayed,” said Gary Sylvester, who has been with St. Francis for 15 years. He said that though parishioners would accept the move, many thought that St. Francis’ larger building, adjacent school structures and parking lots would have made it a natural location for a new, centralized Germantown parish. Sylvester said he thought St. Vincent’s had been chosen because it was older and its larger congregation, who are mostly come from outside of Germantown, brought more money to the collection plate.
“We have the least numbers of people of just about of any city parish. We do understand it, they wanna consolidate and there’s a shortage of priests,” said Sylvester, adding that “a lot of deaths” in recent years had taken a toll on the parish.
He added, “We take the blame for it, as Catholics. We didn’t evangelize enough.”
Sylvester, who lives Glenside and described himself as a one-time “church shopper”, said he was drawn to St. Francis after trying out other churches because of the sense of family.
“There’s just something about this church, the people. They were very hospitable and we fell in love with the people. When my father died out in Bucks County, half the church showed up, which meant a lot,” he said.
Sylvester added that almost everyone in the parish planned to migrate to St. Vincent’s, but as he stood amongst the swirling crowd of former parishioners, he worried about losing the tight knit community at St. Francis.
“We’re trying to be upbeat about it. It’s just going to be a problem of fitting in,” he said.
Others were less sanguine. Dispensing snacks and beverages in the more commonly used and modest “lower church”, below the crowded and ornate hall above, Helen Green voiced resentment towards the flood of long absent alumni.
“You see how many people are up there? If those people had been here before we wouldn’t be losing our church, would we? They could have said something.” said Green, who has been with St. Francis for 15 years, adding that she had heard a “millionaire” alumnus was paying to run shuttle buses to the church for ex-parishioners visiting during the final mass.
“He could have saved the church or said something when they were trying to close it,” she said.
The police presence, shuttle buses ferrying St. Francis alumni from a secured parking lot near LaSalle’s campus, the stark contrast between the alumni and spectating residents: all emphasized the underlying and unresolved issues of racial turmoil, poverty and crime that exacerbated demographic shifts in the neighborhood decades ago.
Yet, as the last mass proceeded, and congregants joined Father Gene Sheridan in a rendition of the gospel standard “Take Me Back”, and the church resounded with an energy that had been absent too long, there was a sense of wholeness again. Of rightness, however fleeting.
Today the great building is silent. Its future uncertain, it stands as a memory to those who knew it, to all others as simply another gravestone to the endless procession of ethnic and religious groups that have arrived, indelibly shaped, and left the varying pieces of Germantown. Perhaps another flock is yet to come. Perhaps only ruin. Germantown has endured both.