The new face of American Catholicism on North BroadBy Anthony Fleet and Zach Renitsky
Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church soars into the sky above the corner of North Broad Street and West Duncannon Avenue in the Logan neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Built shortly after the turn of the century in French Romanesque style, the church once had a predominantly white, working-class congregation made up of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland who worked in the nearby factories and mills.
Today, the church represents the new face of American Catholicism: its congregants are mostly people of color and it has three different services — one in English for a largely African-American congregation; another in Spanish for a largely Puerto Rican congregation; and a third in Tagalog for Filipino members.
Three become one
“I’ve been blessed to minister with the different communities here,” said The Rev. Efren V. Esmilla, a native of the Philippines, who has led the church for nine years. “There’s more life and (vibrancy) in the community, and a unity among the three communities.”
Once known as the “Cathedral of the North,” the church is imposing on the outside. But on the inside, it is full of warmth and life.
At the 10:30 a.m. Spanish mass, Spanish gospel music fills the cavernous nave, with drums, maracas and the Güiro playing in harmony. Families large and small embrace one another during each song. All the while, in the back of the church, a small boy flies his action figures, much to his mother’s disapproval. One member calls the church “a melting pot.”
Impact of changing times
The church’s diversity was born out of the same economic and social forces that have hit the Catholic church in most big cities in the Northeast. It lost its white, middle-class members to the suburbs as large numbers of African Americans arrived from the South in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. It lost its financial base when well-paying factory jobs in nearby neighborhoods moved South and then overseas.
Responding to declining church membership, the Philadelphia archdiocese, like others in Northern cities, began closing parishes.
Hope is born
In 1993 the archdiocese shuttered nearby St. Stephen and Our Lady of the Holy Souls churches, merging them with the Holy Child congregation at 5200 North Broad St. The combined congregations took a new name – Our Lady of Hope.
Sister Gertrude Borres, the director of parish evangelization, came to Our Lady of Hope three years ago from the Philippines. She already sees promise in the community. “It’s like a birth,” she said. “It’s a birth of a new parish, of a new Catholic community. I’m so happy about the spirit. The spirit of the church is very dynamic.”
She added: “There is uniqueness in each community, yet there is a desire for unity.”
The sign outside the church advertises Our Lady of Hope as “a church that is poor, for the poor.” The phrase is from Pope Francis, who has put a spotlight on the Catholic church’s mission to serve the impoverished. Not only does Our Lady of Hope serve a predominantly low-income population, the merged parish is also struggling to keep up with maintenance expenses on its own building.
“We are poor, but we are rich in love and mercy,” explained Esmilla during an interview in his office at the church.
However majestic, the church building is much in need of renewal. The cross that used to sit atop the church was struck down by lightning. The roof has been leaking. A giant black net now cascades across the ceiling of the sanctuary, keeping debris from falling on the heads of worshipers. “Our community is a community that does not have the necessary means,” said Borres.
Years ago, the church that is now Our Lady of Hope had a strong relationship with La Salle University, located just a few blocks away. Many students and faculty regarded it as their parish church. Today, an effort is underway to revive the ties. The resident priest, The Rev. Paul Maina, studied at La Salle. One La Salle student, who is Filipino, works at the church as a secretary and receptionist. Another student teaches second and third grade Catholic-education classes at the church.
“I may not be African- American, Hispanic, or Filipino, but Our Lady of Hope welcomed me with open arms, and I have very good relationships with members from each of the three communities,” said Joseph Rogers, a La Salle sophomore who teaches Co-fraternity of Christian Doctrine classes at the church.
Organizing for change
Our Lady of Hope is one of just 12 parishes in the Philadelphia archdiocese participating in what’s called the “Year of Encounter with Pope Francis.” (See map.) Among other topics, the parishes are studying Francis’s call to eliminate economic inequality, which resonates with members of the congregation.
The churches have joined a larger faith-based group known as POWER – Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild. On Friday, members of the ecumenical organization marched in Center City to press for structural changes in the economic system.
Members of Our Lady of Hope are excited about Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia, especially the mass he will say on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sunday afternoon.
A life-sized cardboard cutout of the Francis sits near the entrance to the church. Sprinkled throughout the church are reading materials, cards and small statues. Borres, who directs evangelization, sports a large red button that says, “I’ll be there.”
Ray Hill, an African-American member of the parish who has been attending service at Our Lady of Hope for 53 years, remembers back to the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. “It was almost like Christmas in the summer,” he said, predicting that this weekend’s visit by Francis will be even better.
For Rev. Esmilla, it will be a dejavu experience. Last January, he helped Francis celebrate mass for 6 million people in Manila. “I’m really excited and will be blessed to see him again,” he said.
(Also contributing to this article were Nicole Paynter, La Salle ’16, and Fernando Rios, La Salle ’16.)