Rev. John J. Large reflects on the past, present and future of the Bella Vista institution.
Escaping agricultural and economic depression, thousands of Irish immigrants fled their homeland in the mid-19th century — many of whom would come to settle in South Philly.
As strangers, they sought a sanctuary where they could foster culture, community, and, of course, Catholicism.
Under the authority of Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick of Philadelphia, the newcomers’ need blossomed into fruition, as St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church became officially established in 1843 under the pastorship of Patrick F. Sheridan.
For close to the next two centuries, the parish’s demographics shifted but the various foreign populations held one concept in common — an idea the church’s current pastor strives to uphold.
“Hopefully, that’s the essence of a church,” said the Rev. John J. Large. “It allows you to be yourself.”
This year marks the 175th anniversary of St. Paul Parish, as this South Philly institution, the first Roman Catholic church in the southernmost district of the former Philadelphia County, which at the time, was known as the Moyamensing District, celebrates the past, present and future of the Bella Vista landmark.
On Sunday, Oct. 21, St. Paul Church, located at 9th and Christian streets, will hold a noon honorary mass followed by a gala at Galdo’s Catering and Entertainment from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Along with tickets to the event, Large, who started his pastorship at St. Paul in 2013 after the closure of Mater Dolorosa in Frankford, kicked off a $600,000 capital campaign last month to help secure funds to repair accumulated water damages and other needed restorations to the church.
“You want to make sure you have the fundamental basis to take care of your people,” the Germantown native said. “Then, you can get into the relationships between leadership and the many.”
For Large, a graduate of the former Cardinal Dougherty High School and Saint Charles Seminary, mending damaged aspects of the 19th century structure, such as its tower, could serve as an opportunity to enchant new parishioners, especially the recent influx of populations to the area, such as the booming Latino, Asian and young generations.
At every point of its existence, St. Paul seems to have always served as a haven for new people, as the Irish were introduced to labor and trade jobs through the parish, considering the church’s location on Christian Street — a business thoroughfare even then.
However, by the turn of the 20th century, thousands of Italian immigrants gradually migrated into the region as the Irish relocated to other parts of the city.
Descending from another predominantly Catholic country, the new ethnicity enveloped the region, eventually leading to the origination of the Italian Market — an epicenter of the parish.
Refocusing on the church’s mission now, Large draws parallels from the past.
“Today, if you look at South Philadelphia,” he said. “There’s a new immigration, and you also have an immigration of young, upperly mobile people. … That’s where a church could be really helpful when you say — ‘they’re new, they come in, they don’t know anybody.’ But, I’m trying to figure out how you get them. What’s the need there?”
Large says St. Paul, whose merger with St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Church in the early 2000s shook the community, lost parishioners over the years with declining mass attendance.
Large is working on cultivating inclusion and moreover consistency among new members of the church. Along with encouraging parishioners to serve as lectors, Large recently established a regular collection of donations for the homeless to engage churchgoers.
“The hard thing is to get a certain consistency, and a consistency is always trying to get them into a job, like a ministry of some sort,” he said. “I always think a parish is good when it goes beyond its boundaries.”
Perhaps, glancing into the next 175 years, the most crucial part of the church’s objective is to eliminate any “us vs. them” mentalities — one of St. Paul’s bedrock principles.
At every mass, Large asks new visitors to stand and shake hands with the regulars.
“On a Sunday, I always try to think — first of all, the most important person in the church is the stranger, because most churches, you come as a stranger and leave as a stranger,” Large said. “We’re very good at making strangers feel strange. We’re excellent at that. … The most important person is the stranger, because Jesus came as a stranger. And how do you know that stranger might be your salvation one day? And how do you know if you ignore the stranger? That might be the very person that could make a difference in your life.”
Info: The parish invites you to join it at the 175th anniversary gala on Oct. 21 to celebrate this occasion — and to help the churches. Following noon mass at St. Paul Church celebrated by Most Reverend Bishop Timothy C. Senior, the gala will take place at Galdo’s, located at 1933 West Moyamensing Ave. on Sunday, Oct. 21, from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. with delicious food and a fantastic lineup of entertainment. Tickets are $100 for adults and $65 for children. The parish hopes you will consider joining it at this event to show your support of the churches. To RSVP, please send your name, address, phone number, email and payment to St. Paul Parish — 808 S. Hutchinson St., Philadelphia, PA 19147. Checks are payable to St. Paul Parish.