The 15th Police District Advisory Council and the Frankford Civic Association honored St. Joachim Pastor Father Steven Wetzel last Sunday for his commitment to the community. But the celebration was bittersweet, as the congregation prepared to bid farewell to the church and a pillar in the community.
The oldest Catholic parish in Northeast Philadelphia, St. Joachim is one of 27 churches scheduled to close July 1 as a result of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s initiative to merge parishes. St. Joachim and Mater Dolorosa in Frankford will merge with Holy Innocents in Juniata and St. Joan of Arc in Harrowgate. St. Leo and Our Lady of Consolation in Tacony will merge, as well.
The mergers are leaving a void in the community and doubt in the hearts of church leaders.
“It means that I didn’t do my job,” said Father John Large, pastor of Mater Dolorosa and St. Joan of Arc about the impact of the merger. “My job was to run the church and grow the church.It didn’t grow.”
Large said while parishioners are very sad and angry, the consensus was that something had to be done to combine resources, and that he kept his parishioners informed every step of the way.
“This was not a surprise,” Large said. “The difficult point was that there had to be a merger to combine resources. Everyone agreed that the merger was fine as long as their parish stayed open.”
In the Fall of 2010, a pastoral letter, ‘Call to Conversion and Holiness,’ was distributed to all the faithful of the archdiocese. It outlined the necessity of examining all 266 parishes in order to determine if they possess the resources to accomplish their role in the mission of Christ and remain sustainable and vibrant faith communities. The shifts in demographics of Catholic populations, declining mass attendance, as well as economic challenges and the availability of clergy to staff the churches were all things considered. The mergers result in new, consolidated parishes.
Kenneth A. Gavin, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said the diocese understands this is an emotionally difficult time for members of the Catholic community because they feel that something is going away.
“It is important to know that this decision was not snap judgment,” he said. “The whole process of the Pastoral Planning is to make sure that the Catholic church is going to be a vibrant presence in communities throughout the archdiocese not only now, but throughout the long run. The Catholic faith goes far beyond the walls of one church building. We are working to make sure that the church is sustainable.”
One of the most important considerations was the number of registered active parishioners and the degree of participation indicated through Sunday Mass attendance and participation in the sacraments, the religious education programs and the institutional responsibilities of the parish (hospitals, nursing homes etc). Also important is the number of baptisms, other sacramental activity and funerals as a way to gauge if the parish is stable, growing, or declining.
Patricia Smiley, the leader of St. Joachim’ s movement to Keep the Faith in Frankford, has started a petition to keep the 168-year-old church open in the community. Smiley said the archdiocese has already made its decision with no input from the community.
“We have been told that the decision has been made and there are no changes,” she said. “What about the poor, the forgotten and disabled that we serve? We must unite, we must invite and we must strike,” she said at the Keep the Faith in Frankford community meeting following last Sunday’s mass.
The Catholic community is closely tied to its schools and parish communities. These parishes have been a central part of their faith life and in many cases have been part of family life for generations.
Anne Krowlikowski has been a member of St. Joachim since she was 12 years old. “I went to school here, I was married here, my kids went to school here and I still attend Mass with my parents,” she said.
Jason Dawkins, special assistant to Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, D-7th, said the reason for the office’s involvement with the church is twofold. Dawkins was born and raised in Frankford and Sanchez is a practicing Catholic.
“Father Wetzel has been an asset in this community and I think it will be a great lost to replace or close this church” Dawkins said. “You can’t replace what Pastor brings to this community. It is important and imperative that we fight to make sure that this church stays open.”
For the time being, the St. Joan of Arc, Mater Dolorosa and St. Joachim church buildings will still be maintained as worship sites. As a result of the merger, the newly formed parish is projected to have more than 8,800 registered parishioners and approximately 1,600 regular attendees at Sunday Mass.