T-shirts, hot dogs, crafts and cannoli vendors lined the streets outside the stonewalls and stained glass windows of Annunciation B.V.M. Church for the eighth annual St. Pio Festival on the last weekend in September.
Music played from the stage set up for live entertainment while viewers chatted at nearby tables. Children ran around with fresh-squeezed lemonade in hand as the smell of fresh-cut french fries filled the air.
But this festival, both a celebration of life and fundraiser for the parish, had a much different atmosphere than previous years. Something was missing.
“Other years we had a lot more children rides. But since we do not have a school we aren’t doing that,” festival organizer and Annunciation parishioner Mary Hardy said.
In September 2012, Annunciation B.V.M., 1158 Wharton St., merged with St. Nicholas of Tolentine School, 913 Pierce St. Together they formed Saint Anthony of Padua Regional School, located in St. Nicholas of Tolentine’s building.
Annunciation B.V.M was just one of the 24 Catholic elementary schools proposed for closing by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last winter because of low enrollment and financial problems. Of that two dozen schools, 18 were lucky enough to stay open. Annunciation B.V.M wasn’t among that lucky 18.
Annunciation had enrolled approximately 202 students in grade levels pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
St. Nicholas of Tolentine also offered pre-kindergarten through eighth grade classes but had a larger enrollment with approximately 374 students.
Aside from financial and low enrollment, Mary Hardy, who grew up with a Catholic education, felt it was time for a change.
“Catholic churches and schools had to do something because of the limited amount of nuns and we [Annunciation B.V.M.] can’t afford to keep buildings open,” Hardy said.
Annunciation has had no nuns teaching in classrooms for the past six years according to Hardy. The church was forced to pay teachers for a job nuns did for free. St. Nicholas had nuns in the classroom who now also teach in the merged school.
While the merger was necessary in order to save the schools from closing completely, many parishioners and members of the Annunciation community were still upset.
Angie Forte, 71, a member of Annunciation B.V.M., had three grandchildren graduate from Annunciation elementary and one who was in fourth grade when the merger occurred.
“My daughter had to decide if she was going to send my grandson to the new merged school or to one of the charter schools,” Forte said. “She decided to play it safe and send him to the charter school.”
Even Mary Hardy admits it must have been difficult for some students who have been attending Annunciation since pre-kindergarten to move into a new school with new teachers and new students.
But Hardy believes the merger has been financially positive for the parish even though fewer children are now attending Catholic schools and more are frequenting charter schools.
Angie Forte fears that if Catholic schools are beginning to close then it’s only a matter of time before Catholic churches begin to close. She believes the annual St. Pio Festival keeps Annunciation “relevant” and shows outsiders why Annunciation is so special.
“I don’t think the school closing has affected the church community in a big way but it does make you scared at what is to come. If they are willing to close a school, why not a church?” Forte said.
The St. Pio festival not only brings the members of the Annunciation parish together, it is an event that the entire South Philadelphia community looks forward to it.
Alana Tomarchio, 24, employed by one the festival’s vendors, T&N Homemade Kitchen, believes the festival has gained popularity due to word of mouth.
“It’s always nice to see new faces and people you haven’t seen for quite some time,” Tomarchio said. “South Philly is such a small tight-knit neighborhood and when someone likes something they let everyone know.”
As a former student at Saint Richards Catholic School, a Catholic school also forced to merge with another school, Tomarchio realizes the importance of keeping the tradition of the festival alive and letting people know and learn about the church.
“I think that parishioners of Annunciation Parish are trying to keep their church in ‘the know’ even though their parish school has closed,” Tomarchio said.
The size of the crowds filling the streets around the annual festival provides proof that Annunciation parishioners stand behind their church and its decisions.
“I have been a part of Annunciation Parish since my family moved here in the 1950s. I got married in this church. My children were baptized in it and went to school here,” Angie Forte said.