by Lou Baldwin
PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — “Two Irishmen and a nun entered a bar. . .” What’s the punchline?
There isn’t one because this is no joke, but rather a new Catholic outreach effort of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that has taken firm root in a former bar in a tough section of the city.
The two Irishmen are Father Joseph Devlin, former pastor of St. Bridget Parish in Philadelphia, and Father William Murphy, former pastor of Assumption BVM Parish in West Grove, and the nun is Sister Ann Raymond Welte, an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister, who is former director of Temple University’s Newman Center.
The onetime bar is now Mother of Mercy House, which opened last July as a place of worship and social ministry. It’s a haven of hope in a neighborhood where hope has been in short supply for years, although there are slight hints of a comeback.
It all started when nearby Ascension of Our Lord Parish closed in 2012, and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia asked his priests for ideas on what could be done to keep a Catholic presence in the Kensington neighborhood, and Fathers Devlin and Murphy both independently volunteered to be missioned there.
“It has met expectations,” said Father Devlin, after a small community Mass in late January. “I’m more and more convinced an obvious presence of the church is needed in the neighborhood and the people are very happy and receptive. They say, ‘Wow, the church is back.’
“They know they can come and receive help. We offer Mass and prayer to people who have not the ability to go to Mass and they can seek spiritual help from a priest.”
Although Mass is celebrated most weekdays for a small knot of people, Mother of Mercy is not a parish, and both priests have weekend ministry in suburban parishes.
By doing this, they are not taking parishioners away from nearby parishes and they have the opportunity to increase awareness and involve others in their inner-city spiritual and social ministry.
“We are at the heart of the neighborhood and we are working with the neighbors,” Father Murphy told CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “It is very exciting.”
His former parish had a coat drive that enabled him to distribute 200 coats to people in Kensington. Also, Mother of Mercy distributes donated foods to people who come often before or after Mass.
Because substance abuse is endemic in the neighborhood, an Alcoholics Anonymous program is up and running with a Narcotics Anonymous program ready to start.
“We welcome anyone who is addicted to come to the meetings that are held right here,” Father Murphy said, adding they also work to get people with addictions into available treatment programs.
An evening prayer group has already been started, but another outreach, the offering of Masses in private homes, had to be dropped because in the psychology of the neighborhood people are unwilling to welcome others they do not know well into their homes.
Sister Ann Raymond, who knew both Father Devlin and Father Murphy well, was invited to join the team, which she did with the hearty approval of her congregation.
For her the first theme is to help the people spiritually because they have a spiritual hunger and secondly to assist them with their other needs.
As a woman, she feels she complements what Fathers Devlin and Murphy can do.
“God made me a female, he wouldn’t make me a female if he didn’t have a reason,” she said. “I think each [male and female] has its own presence and personality. I think the male presence is necessary and the female presence is necessary too, it brings something different.”
Mother of Mercy isn’t a ministry exclusively for religious. Dr. Frank McNesby, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital who attended the Mass and is an active member of the Philadelphia Guild of the Catholic Medical Association, said the association is actively exploring ways to engage in some form of outreach in Kensington.
“The goal is to treat the body to get to the soul,” he said. “Our first mission is the corporal works of mercy, and we hope to engage the needy population to bring them in and then we can embrace whatever their faith needs are.”
“I heard about this at the Catholic Worker house,” said Geoff Gusoff, a third-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t know how, but I want to connect, to help the community, to meet the neighbors.”
Some of those neighbors are also interested in Mother of Mercy House.
George, who was relaxing on a nearby stoop, said, “They are not bad neighbors, I go to St. Francis Inn, too.”
Benny, another neighbor, said, “They gave me clothes for myself and my kids too. Drugs are out of hand here and I love these people for what they teach.”
Father Devlin agrees there is a great deal of drugs and violence in the neighborhood, but in spite of that, “there are friendly people here with a strong sense of community. There are wonderful families who work hard, try to take care of their children and try to take care of each other.”