East Passyunk: Keeping the Faith In The Italian Community
Nicholas Martorano is an Augustinian priest who has been the pastor at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in East Passyunk for the past 33 years. Raised in the area, he has brought the long-standing traditions of his Italian upbringing, a strong emphasis on faith and family, to enhance the quality of life for the people in his hometown parish.
Where are you originally from and what is your background?
I am originally from this parish and was born in South Philadelphia. If you are familiar with the area, I am from 12th and Mifflin streets, which is only about six blocks from St. Nicholas. I grew up in South Philadelphia and grew up attending this parish. I had all of my sacraments here at this church. When I went into the seminary, I studied in various places throughout the country, including in New York and in Washington, D.C. When I was ordained here at St. Nicholas, I then went to teach in New Jersey for about eight years and was then sent back to St. Nicholas where I have been the pastor for 33 years.
Have you always wanted to become a pastor?
I can’t say that is generally true. I think that is something that came about when I was in college, first at the Community College of Philadelphia and then later at LaSalle University. I had always thought about becoming involved in the Catholic Church and helping the church and by that I came to discover a vocation to the priesthood and the Augustinian life.
In what ways does your church positively affect your community?
St. Nicholas provides stability to the South Philadelphia community and it brings a longstanding tradition, as well as bringing faith to our congregation. Actually, our motto for this particular community is “faith, family and tradition.” These three things are extremely important to us, especially within our Italian community, as this church was founded for Italian immigrants. We have always tried to keep that tradition alive, as we are having our big Italian Festival in October.
From speaking with you last week, you had said the population is definitely changing in South Philadelphia. Can you speak to this a little bit, in terms of your parish and the people in your church?
The area is certainly changing and becoming gentrified, especially over the past 15 years. At first, it was basically an Asian-based move into our South Philadelphia region. As time moved on, more and more Hispanics have moved in and have joined our church. Nowadays, there are so many young professionals who have moved into our area and that have been buying into our community. The face of the community was primarily 85 to 90 percent Italian, and many of the second and third generation Italian immigrants have either died or moved. So now, we basically have three communities, those who have lived here all of their lives, the Hispanic and Asian population, and then the young professional people.
How would you describe your relationship with the people in your community, and more specifically in your congregation?
From what I can see and from what I hear from my experiences, I have a very close, intimate and loving relationship with these people. Since I have been in the South Philadelphia area for so many years, I have been with so many families and different generations and everything in between. From tears to laughing, and from all of the sacraments and weddings and funerals, I have developed so many different relationships and friendships over my time at St. Nick’s that I will always cherish. These people in our church feel extremely comfortable with me as their pastor. Therefore, there is a spiritual bond that has been created, so the pastor, in a sense, becomes the spiritual father of the people in the parish, and I truly hope that I am considered to be a good father.
How would you describe the people in your parish, in terms of involvement and commitment to St. Nick’s?
Our people, for the most part, are very good, decent human beings and have always been very cooperative and respectful. Many of the people in our parish are genuinely interested in their faith and truly love this church. Overall, I would say the people in our parish are very devoted to the church. We see this with our daily worship numbers, and especially with the very highly attended baptisms and weddings (photographed here) we hold here at St. Nick’s.
What are you most proud of from being the pastor at St. Nicholas for the past 33 years?
I enjoy having the ability to influence and make a true impact on the lives of the people here in my parish. The idea of being relied on by the people in our congregation has always provided me with great comfort, and the idea that these people truly trust me and make me a member of their family has always given me a great sense of pride and happiness.
What causes are important to you as a community leader?
For us a church community, we are extremely interested in evangelization, bringing the scripture and the gospel to the people, especially those who have maybe lost their faith or who are no longer connected to the Catholic community. As the church community in general, we focus on taking care of the poor, making sure justice is being served, spreading the gospel message and of course educating our young people.
Is your church involved with any service projects throughout the community?
Yes, we have lots of services that we do in our community. We always have clothing drives and our food cupboards, as well as the Golden Age Club for seniors. We always give out food to those people in need during Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter as well. People individually, as families, always come to me and seek counseling. Our latest project involves welcoming new Hispanic immigrants into our community in addition to our spiritual community as Catholics.
-Text and images by Alex Starkman and Nydja Hood.