Catholic church changes keep doors open

There are thousands of Catholics living in South Philadelphia. In fact, it is a well-practiced and accepted tradition to ask “Which parish do you belong to?” Your answer might tell a South Philadelphian more than you know – where you grew up, where you went to school, who your relatives might be, or where your regular social haunts are located. Any shift or changes in one’s parish can be painful, but local church leadership, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and even faithful Catholics in South Philadelphia affected by the newest news are keeping a positive attitude, one that looks at the newest announcements as changes to strengthen the church for the future.

“I love my church. This is my home. I’m raising my children here, and I want that for them,” Loredana Sesso-Mrozi, a resident of the 1000 block of Watkins Street and a parishioner of St. Nicholas of Tolentine, 910 Watkins St., said “I had a beautiful childhood, and a lot of it was based on my community and my church. There’s nothing better than to know and feel comfortable with everyone and to just be warm to people. That’s all.”

Hers is one of the three churches implicated in a shuffling of administration and pastoral leadership, along with Annunciation B.V.M. Church, 1511 S. 10th St., and the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, 1166 S. Broad St. The pastor and three members of each parish met with the local Parish Area Pastoral Planning Committee, where parish restructuring options were presented by the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee. Sesso-Mrozi represented her parish, where mergers and partnerships were discussed.

According to a letter from the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, the models of collaboration entertained were a merger “by which two parishes are combined into one parish,” and a partnership “by which the pastoral leadership and administration of the parishes are combined, but they otherwise remain free standing parishes.” Seemingly, both models will go into effect July 1.

All three churches are staying open. St. Rita and Annunciation will merge parishes, and Annunciation will be the parish church, and the new name for that parish will be Annunciation B.V.M. The new Annunciation church will enter into a partnership with St. Nicholas of Tolentine, and this new partnership will have an Augustinian pastor (as opposed to a Diocesan pastor).

The biggest changes? St. Nicholas and St. Rita were already receiving pastoral leadership from Augustinians, but Annunciation will lose its Diocesan pastor. St. Rita parishioners, however, are effectively losing their parish, even if they can attend services in the building.

Kenneth A. Gavin, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, assuaged concerns for SPR’s Catholic readers.

“We are cognizant of the fact that parish mergers will bring sadness and pain. For many people, the link to their parish community is part of their identity,” he wrote. “As a community of faith, however, we are more than any one church building or parish. Change is rarely easy, but with prayer, faith, and hard work we can and will build the strongest Catholic Church possible in Philadelphia.”

“I can understand the anxieties. It’s a little bit of a different setup. It’s not always easy,” Rev. Nick Martorano, pastor of St. Nicholas, said. “There will be some working together. That’s what this is all about – it’s really about serving the people and giving them a better experience of church and of parish life and evangelization.”

His sympathies were with St. Rita parishioners.

“St. Rita will be turned over to the Shrine, and the people will now become a part of the Annunciation parish,” he explained.

Rev. Joseph Genito agrees but also stresses that not very much will change in practice.

“People can choose to go to either Annunciation Church or St. Rita Church to fulfill their parish obligations, but the parish church, officially, will be Annunciation and St. Rita is the shrine,” the Saint Rita-stationed figured explained. “It’s just a little difference in administration. We’ll still administer the sacraments. We’re going to live as one community.”

That, it could be said, reflects the Augustinian nature of its order.

“We don’t work alone. You won’t find an Augustinian in a parish all by himself with no support and no one to work with,” Genito stated. It will be “a community of men who will be able to help and cover and support each other. Our lifestyle affects the way we preach, it affects the way that we administer in a parish and a shrine. Diocesan priests, for the most part, are individuals and they are alone – it’s a very solitary lifestyle.”

Genito will stay on as the pastor of the Shrine’s chapel, but not as a pastor at St. Rita: “they’re losing their pastor but no pastor stays forever.”

“We are a religious community all over the world,” Martorano noted, explaining that their headquarters are in Villanova. “We’ve been serving in this community for over 100 years at St. Nicholas and St. Rita. We go wherever our people are, from Massachusetts to Florida. We can serve in any diocese.”

Some parish versus parish sentiments may arise, but Mrs. Sesso-Mrozi says that kind of territorialism isn’t healthy.

“For us three parishes, this is the best case scenario. You can’t ask for more than having your church staying open,” she argued, and offered an apt anology. “It’s just like when you get married and you inherit other people and you grow your family and it gets larger. In the end, everyone knew what was best for everybody.”

“In short, this isn’t about a struggle and the faith isn’t dwindling,” Gavin said when asked if this reflects the idea that churches are simply struggling. Factors considered include “demographic shifts in Catholic populations, concentrated density of parishes in a limited geographic area, history of declining Mass attendance and sacramental activity, increasing economic challenges, a decrease in the availability of clergy to staff parishes, and a review of facilities.”

Gavin concluded that “we hope that people come to the realization that our shared Catholic faith is not about buildings but about Jesus Christ himself.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.

Passyunk Square’s Annunciation B.V.M. Church will take on added significance when becoming the formal parish for members of the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia.

St. Nicholas of Tolentine and the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia have served South Philly for more than 200 years combined.

Photos by Tina Garceau

Staff Photo by Tina Garceau

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Jane Kiefer
Jane Kiefer, a seasoned journalist with a rich background in digital media strategies, leads South Philly Review as its Editor-in-Chief. Originally hailing from Seattle, Jane combines her outsider perspective with a profound respect for South Philly's vibrant community, bringing fresh insights and innovative storytelling to the newspaper.