Ode to the City Priest
TODAY, Tiffany Watkins exudes vitality, confidence and happiness. Two years ago last July, a sobbing Tiffany begged entrance to St. Malachy’s sanctuary, a rare respite in North Philadelphia’s rough environs. When Olga Richardson answered the rectory bell, she could tell that Tiffany needed more than a place to pray. Olga summoned Father John Patrick McNamee.Not even a half-century ago, the vast landscape of North Philadelphia's central core brimmed with no less than 35 parishes, and an even greater number of priests. Now, but two remain: Fr Ed at St Martin's (who some might remember from an earlier post), and Mac at Malachy's.
His compassionate listening and prayer with her in time of trial turned the tide of despair for her. “I owe him my life,” Tiffany says.
My two days in tandem with St. Malachy’s pastor reveal bountiful evidence that Father Mac, as he’s usually known, could call in a host of debts owed. Since the priest keeps no such ledger, St. Anthony Messenger determined to chronicle this vanishing style of ministry: one diocesan priest in a depressed neighborhood, where he is also a community activist whose willingness to beg, borrow, barter and plead keeps an elementary school thriving. “It’s important that the Church stay here, close to all that need,” he says.
His like may exist elsewhere, as Father Mac insists, but surely there’s no twin. This man has four published books: two works each of prose and poetry. His 1993 memoir, Diary of a City Priest, was made into an award-winning, feature-length film in 2001. Father Mac, however, thinks this interview should be about St. Malachy Parish and all the people who keep it going.
Pastor and parish—in this case, the story’s much the same. “It’s about seeing another human being in need,” says Regina Young, St. Malachy’s finance manager. “That’s what this place does! It makes you more generous.”...
His Sunday congregation at St. Malachy Parish, where he’s been pastor since 1984 (administrator since December 1982), is a respectable size. Olga, whose official title is chair of the Worship and Service Committee, also keeps the numbers. She counts 400 families, part neighborhood residents (once Irish, now black), part downtowners and part suburban friends. And people do drive from the suburbs to North Philly on Sunday mornings, despite 127 violent deaths in the first half of this year alone.
The pastor welcomes people in—most often by name—and sees them out again. He will probably see them again at after-Mass hospitality in the school lunchroom. Father Mac’s homily serves a mix of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus, W.H. Auden and Dag Hammarskjöld, alongside St. Ignatius, some Fathers of the Church and the Sunday readings. Both a tiny newborn with proud parents and a couple celebrating 50 years of marriage are recognized at the 11 a.m. Mass I attend, the latter given the altar flowers when Mass is over. The parish has a family feeling....
Between Sunday Masses each week, hermit Richard Withers drops in at the kitchen entrance to say hello. Richard explains that 200-300 hermits such as himself live under the umbrella of various U.S. dioceses in the Order of Consecrated Hermits. Over coffee, I sit amazed to converse with a hermit in inner-city Philadelphia! (I presumed they lived as ascetic, silent recluses in remote areas.)
This cheerful man dismantles all my preconceptions—except asceticism. Obviously resourceful, Richard lives in a once-abandoned tiny rowhouse bought for $1 and restored to livability by the man himself. He works part-time to support a nearly off-the-grid lifestyle and bakes Sunday’s eucharistic bread as his parish offering. Otherwise, Richard Withers, a young 52, happily describes his as a “hidden life” in which he ponders “unseen realities.”
Father Mac, who moves amiably in and out of the kitchen responding to doors and phone, is clearly pleased to count Richard Withers among his congregants, claiming him as the “parish hermit, a singular and extraordinary blessing.”...
[But] St. Malachy rectory is certainly no hermitage. Rather, it seems to be a Catholic house of hospitality open to people of all faiths—or none. While the kitchen could use an extreme makeover, it does have a restaurant-size range (a gift, Father Mac explains), so out of this kitchen can come meals for many.
On a linen tablecloth in the dining room, Olga serves the noon meal on weekdays. It’s hard to predict how much to prepare, she explains, since it’s challenging to guess who might be out or who might bring guests. Anyone in the rectory at noon Monday through Friday, though, would be welcome, Olga says.
Diners often include the rectory’s current residents, who vary in age, interests and length of stay. Sister Catherine Denny, parish social minister, often joins the noonday table.
A veteran in the field of social ministry, Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity Sister Catherine does home nursing, brings Holy Communion to the sick and coordinates Aid for Friends, entrées home-cooked by people all over the county and frozen for delivery as needed by Sister Catherine. She also helps parishioners shop for their own groceries. “There’s no supermarket around here,” she points out. She also contacts multiple sources to stock the emergency food cupboard, organizes a Mass of Anointing, as well as holiday food and gifts for the elderly, plus a Christmas party for the parish’s children. Her phone rings often.
Between calls, Sister Catherine, now in her 21st year at St. Malachy, tries to credit others. Nearby Temple University is a big source of support, she says. She also names a large network of parishes—St. Monica, Berwin; St. Thomas, Chester Heights; St. Luke, Doylestown; St. Rose of Lima, North Wales; St. Isaac Jogues, Wayne—whose members cook and shop and underwrite the parish outreach she coordinates. Suburban connections are common at St. Malachy.
Ruth Thornton-Payne, principal of St. Malachy School, describes similar partnering and participation by people and parishes in the Philadelphia suburbs. Ruth graduated from St. Malachy herself, became a teacher’s aide there, then a teacher for 27 years before becoming principal four years ago. St. Malachy is “a place I call home,” she says. “Father Mac knew me when I was a little girl. He is dedicated to improving St. Malachy School.”
So is its principal, whose four sons have all graduated from St. Malachy and, as is common among its graduates, have gone on to do well in high school and in life. The school opens for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and the after-school program concludes at 6:30 p.m. “Have to—to make it work for single parents,” Father Mac explains. “This school is here to serve the community.”
Just this year, Father McNamee—inspired by his friend Father Michael Doyle and ably assisted by the school development committee—began an “Adopt-a-Student” program to offset the real costs of tuition ($4,500 per student) at St. Malachy. Donors could pledge a monthly gift or a single annual payment of $300. Students—and their sponsors—see the school as a “small island of safety and grace and faith,” their pastor observes.
That first “adoptive” year was concluded last May with Mass, luncheon and tour for the students and 95 of the sponsors. Principal Thornton-Payne describes sponsors clutching their photo of the adopted student, delighted to match image to reality. The principal recalls one woman saying, “When I get home, I’ll put your picture back on the refrigerator—with those of my other children.”...
“I try not to live here as though life begins and ends at 11th and Master— even though it could! I am connected and related to the neighborhood. I live here. I’m one of them,” Father McNamee says during a welcome but brief lull on a Sunday afternoon.
His desire to live his priestly ministry in this involved and involving way was inspired in part by Dorothy Day. Father Mac explains that, in the seminary library, “there was little by way of newspapers. I discovered The Catholic Worker newspaper and began looking for its appearance in the reading room....Dorothy Day was already talking about the revolution in the Church in Europe—liturgical renewal, social action and French worker-priests.” Day’s passion inspired the young seminarian. “Working in the inner city, involved in the struggle of working people, was as close as one could come in the American situation to a worker-priest,” Father Mac says....
He’s a man of prayer, this pastor. The shape it takes is an hour by “my morning window” in his upstairs room, incorporating the psalms and canticles of the Divine Office. Asked about his daily journal (his two works of prose have been excerpted from this reflective discipline), Father McNamee says, “I’m more tired at the end of the day now than I was 10 years ago.”
Often Mondays find him at the Jersey shore, far enough away but close enough to reach. He and his friend Father Ed Hallinan, pastor of nearby St. Martin de Porres Parish, often escape there together. They fret together over questions of financial solvency, the future of their parishes, their people, their causes, their dilemmas. St. Malachy has the annual Irish concert and the Fighting Irish 5K Race which raise money, but still...
When May 2008 comes all too soon, will St. Malachy School have the strong financial base it needs to continue, independent of archdiocesan funding? Will the parish become one more casualty of inner-city closures? After all, St. Malachy has already absorbed the congregations of Gesu, Assumption, St. Edward and Our Lady of Mercy parishes. “Whether this work survives us or doesn’t is completely out of our hands,” says Father McNamee.
The two priests are weary but resolute. Father Mac’s beloved Simone Weil comes to mind, saying, “A test of what is real is that it is hard and rough. Joys are found in it, not pleasure. What is pleasant belongs in dreams.”
The junior of the duo marks his silver jubilee of ordination next year. Beyond them, it's safe to say that this town's talent pool for engaged, effective, life-giving urban ministry is as thin as the work is necessary, and not merely for the good of the souls within their boundaries.
In the most recent high-profile homily delivered by an American prelate, the newly-installed archbishop of Baltimore reiterated a predecessor's emphatic call: "If we don't save this city, we can forget about the church in the archdiocese."
"In human terms," Edwin O'Brien said, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan's charge "remains as true today as it was 41 years ago. For to write off large parts of this city as hopeless and beyond redemption is to disregard tens of thousands of lives made in the image and likeness of God.
"Such disregard might be very unlikely to find forgiveness on that last day, when each of us makes an account of our stewardship, as indeed we must...."
"It simply cannot be the case that the urban ministry of which the archdiocese of Baltimore was a pioneer should or must, finally, fail, from lack of energy, lack of resources, and lack of vision.
"We cannot allow this as a people, as a church. We cannot allow large parts of our city to die. We cannot allow thousands of our neighbors to live lives of hopelessness and despair...."
Suffice it to say, that imperative isn't unique to Charm City, nor the River City. Just as its Founder set "what you do for these least ones" as the measuring stick of his church's fidelity to him, so our future rests on the survival of "this vanishing style of ministry" and the support, with every last drop we can muster, of the heroic few who have sacrificed much to make it their life's work.
With its bishop-pastor long gone and its neighborhood's reign as mega-bastion of faith but a memory, some might be tempted to view St Malachy's halcyon days as past.
Then again, any who'd dare think that would be wise to meet Father Mac.