Since 1682, when William Penn began what was called his “holy experiment,” Philadelphia has been a haven for those who practice the Catholic religion. In fact, according to the website for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Catholic population between 1733 and 1790 skyrocketed from just 40 people to 8,000 people, after the first Catholic Philadelphia church was built. Since that time, Catholics in the Philadelphia area have disseminated to various suburbs and neighborhoods within the Philadelphia area. Two such areas that were abundant with practicing Catholics are the Manayunk and Roxborough areas.
St. John the Baptist Church, on Cresson and Rector Streets in Manayunk, was one of the first Roman Catholic Churches to emerge in the area with its opening in 1831. It also remains the 10th oldest parish in the archdiocese and one of the only remaining ones in the Manayunk-Roxborough area.
After its construction and opening, it was followed by the emergence of several other Roman Catholic Churches such as the Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in 1849; the Church of the Holy Family in 1885; the Church of St. Josaphat in 1898; the Church of St. Lucy in 1927 and the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1953. Each of these parishes brought to Manayunk and Roxborough a unique form of Roman Catholic worship rooted in its parishioners’ collective heritage. These parishes each had a distinctive cultural background that made the daily activities of the church a contributing factor in the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Manayunk and Roxborough areas. While St. John the Baptist Church and the Church of the Holy Family share an Irish cultural background, other parishes maintain different cultural histories. The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption was a predominantly German church while the Church of St. Lucy was the Italian parish and the Church of St. Josaphat served as the Polish parish. These parishes celebrated the Catholic religion not only through daily masses but also through various activities, ceremonies and cultural traditions. Erin Wixted, a nurse at a Catholic nursing home, remembered some of the things her Catholic grade school used to do.
“We had Lenten journey where we would go to different churches every Thursday all-around the churches in Manayunk,” said Wixted. “A lot of people knew each other in the community. In the church it was just very close-knit.”
In recent years, however, these churches have suffered greatly from the Archdiocesan shut-down of Catholic schools.
Many of these Manayunk-Roxborough parishes saw their accompanying schools merge with others, and most of the schools eventually closed completely. The school closings have left many parents without a choice in where their children attend school. Many parents rely on CCD classes because they have been forced to send their children to public schools.
“ Well I put him in public school because there are no Catholic schools around here,” said Nicole Barbaro, mother of one, who is frustrated with the lack of Catholic schooling in the area. “I put him in CCD because he needs to learn the importance of his sacraments, his religion. He shouldn’t have to do that on a Sunday morning. He should be able to get that at a regular school, Monday through Friday.”
In fact, only one of the original Catholic schools in the Roxborough area, the Immaculate Heart of Mary School, remains open and no Catholic schools are left in Manayunk. While some parishes have watched their accompanying schools turn into new schools, such as the St. Mary’s school, which is now Green Woods Charter School, one parish was not so lucky. Developers at Green Lane Reality Associates have acquired the St. Lucy’s school and parish property since its closing and many people who went to St Lucy’s are dismayed to hear that they will not be keeping the school building around at all. WHYY reported that the developers are looking to make the buildings into apartments and several houses. The building of the new residences would require various alterations to make the closed school up to code for housing. Currently, the property sits missing its rectory, having already been demolished. The remaining school building is missing windows and its exterior has been altered by graffiti while construction has already started at the top of the building. Now the area faces an even larger danger of losing Catholic institutions with the growing tendency toward parish shut-downs.
Many of the churches in Manayunk have already merged. In July 2012, the Archdiocese delivered a decision closing St. Josaphat, the church with the lowest weekend mass attendance, to merge with Holy Family and closing St. Mary and St. Lucy parishes to merge with St. John the Baptist, according to WHYY’s newsworks.org. The website also stated that these mergers were based on multiple factors including demographic shifts in Catholic population, geographical parish density, declining Mass attendance and sacramental activity. The parishioners of the three closed parishes attempted to send a proposal to the archdiocese that the three “ethnic parishes” be combined to form one parish, assuring higher attendance and arguing for better parking opportunities. The proposal, however, was rejected by the archdiocese.
Parishes such as St. Mary’s have also attempted other means of keeping their individual cherished worship homes open. The church of St. Mary of the Assumption created a website called “Keep St. Mary’s Alive” on which the community keeps record of the meetings of The St. Mary of the Assumption Appeal Committee. On it’s About page, the Church discusses all of the unique ways in which the parish has worked to increase attendance, reach out to people in the community and welcome people from other local parishes to its faith-based groups. Other pages on the site offer updates on the appeal process, articles concerning the closings of Catholic schools and churches and parishioner and community survey results about the appeal process, complete with charts. St. Mary’s website is just one example of the many ways in which the parish has been active in trying to maintain and restore the Catholic heritage of Manayunk and Roxborough. However, these closings and futile rescue attempts may very well leave the Manayunk-Roxborough Catholic community members wondering how long and how hard they will have to fight to keep their traditions and practices alive.
St. Lucy, St. Josaphat and St. Mary’s churches are no longer hosting weekday or weekend mass but are still available for events such as funerals and weddings, with special permission.