University City: Catholic Church Embraces Change Expanding Services to Serve Faithful

The Newman Center on Chestnut Street in University City.]

If you are looking for a multicultural experience when attending church Ss. Agatha and James Parish on 38th and Chestnut Sts. is a good place to find such an experience. This Catholic church’s website even claims, “You’ve never seen a parish quite like us!”

But it wasn’t always that way.

Before 1975, there were two separate churches that served two different neighborhoods. Saint James served the community of University City while St. Agatha served the neighborhood just north of University City. St Agatha, once located at 3801 Spring Garden St., was founded in 1865 and had a school attached to it for many years.

Inside of Saints Agatha and James Church on Chestnut Street in University City.

“I went to elementary school there for first through eighth grade, but the school closed before the church did,” Spring Garden resident Rebecca Rose said.

The church closed because population dynamics in that area neighborhood continued to change. Over the years it became less and less Catholic.

Lowell Webb witnessed the transformation of the neighborhood over the years. He tells the history of his neighborhood as it moved from mostly homeowners and families to more students moving in as the University of Pennsylvania grew.

“My street used to be all Catholics. But as time went on people moved out and the University bought the homes and students moved in,” Webb explained.

This created age and religious diversity in the neighborhood.

In 2010, the average age of people living in University City was 20-24 according the US Census. More than 30% of University City residents were in that age bracket. Almost 20% of the population was between ages 25-34. What’s more interesting is the Diversity Index of University City. Within University City boundaries, the probability that any two residents are of different races ranges from 10% in one small area to 80% in many areas.

These demographics are largely due in part to the expansion of the University of Pennsylvania and the amount of professors and students, who come from all over the world. Just over 50% of University City residents are white while about 25% are African American. Just fewer than 20% are Asian and 6% are some other race or two or more races, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

In March 2012, a Gallup Poll was released citing that 32% of Americans are nonreligious, a statistic that is not a good thing for the community of Catholics in University City. Especially when 32% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 are unaffiliated with a religious denomination.

With the Catholic affiliation of Americans teetering at just above 20% over the past five years, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has had to take action all over its region.  And while St. Agatha Church merged at St. James Church a few blocks south on August 12, 1976, the change in the dynamic of the congregation is something Rebecca Rose recalls clearly. She said the biggest change yet, however, occurred within the past three years.

“Now it’s inclusive of four universities,” she said, adding that it’s a good thing for the neighborhood.

“Most communities have a church presence and most churches’ philosophy is creating community, bringing people together, the practice of faith,” Rose said. “And having the diverse mix we have here gives you that greater opportunity of bringing people together of various differences and merging the community, introducing a new something different where people have to get used to.”

Two years ago, the Archdiocese took a step in an effort to create a stronger community. The Archdiocese brought together the ministry of the Newman organization from three University City schools to one central location and merged that with the parish offices.

Newman Centers are Catholic organizations at non-Catholic universities. The first American Newman Center was established at the University of Pennsylvania in 1893. The pastor of St. James Parish at that time helped establish the center, solidifying from the beginning the connectedness of parish life and student life at Penn.

The Penn Newman Center was located at the building next to St. James Church and still remains there. Now it holds numerous purposes. When the Archdiocese brought all the organizations together at the Penn Newman building, it became the center for a growing community of faith. Along with Penn Newman’s offices, the building is home to Drexel Newman, University of the Sciences Newman Center, and the Parish offices for Ss. Agatha and James parish.

“It’s really become the University City Catholic Center,” said Fr. McGuinn. He is pastor of the Parish and Director of Newman Centers for all three universities.

Since they have all merged together the ministries to the students have crossed over into the ministry of the Church and the ministries to the people of the Parish. What that has meant is students are now involved in Parish activities such as providing music at mass, alter serving, lecturing, and the Right of Catholic Initiation for Adults.

Before the merger parishioners would be solely responsible for these activities. Now more and more young people from the universities are participating in the life of the Parish along with their activities with the Newman Centers.

“The ministries of the campus and the ministries of the parish cross-fertilize themselves, and I think it’s a better model,” Fr. McGuinn said.

Jeff Klein addressed students about participating at the Newman Center

Jeff Klein is the Assistant Director Penn Newman Ministry. He says that their ministry to Penn includes faculty, staff, administration but students primarily are the focus.

“Encouraging students to be involved in community service in West Philadelphia is an important part of what we do. There are things we can do to expand that but I think right now we’re trying to focus students on not staying within the campus bubble.”

He says that peer to peer ministry is important and the activities that the Center provides students allows them to experience the peer ministry. They provide social, spiritual and service opportunities for students such as dollar dinners, game nights, making rosaries, prayer groups and visiting the Veteran’s Comfort House on Baltimore Avenue.

Among activities for students is the opportunity to visit rural Pennsylvania on a retreat with the Newman Center.

“It’s about getting away from the hustle and bustle of normal daily life to do something different that is positive. It’s an opportunity to reflect on our lives, to do some prayer, live in scripture, and to form community,” Klein said.

The hope is that community formed on retreat will carry into life back in University City at the Parish.

Rebecca Rose reiterates the multicultural experience and how it connects with forming a community.

“People  from countries outside of America [coming here] is something to get used to and students from outside of America have to develop a trust and a comfort level because they are in a new country and a church community is about welcoming  and the community has an opportunity to engage in that welcoming philosophy.”

The Church community, along with the student community of the Newman Centers that worship at the church, can engage in one of the simplest ways, attending mass.

Elizabeth Feeney listened to speakers at a reception in the Newman Center for University of Penn Homecoming.

“Mass provides a base, a foundation, and it’s something that connects you to your home when you’re away from home. Even some people who don’t feel connected to some of the ‘Catholicy’ things we do here, mass is still important,” the Spirituality Co-Chair at Penn Newman Elizabeth Feeney said.

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