Tens of thousands of dollars were raised by the melting-pot parish.
Flags representing 16 countries suspend from the balcony of Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, 1719 Morris St.
From Pan-African to Puerto Rican, the sight conveys a community of cultures bonded by one worship.
So, when a hole in the Newbold church’s boiler was uncovered this past summer, parishioners around the city, and even beyond, felt is was their duty to restore the more than century-old structure, as the site offers more than religion.
It serves as a cultural sanctuary of South Philadelphia.
“It’s a special place. It really is,” said Ralph Citino, business manager of church. “I say all the time — miracles happen here every day. It’s just miracles we don’t see. The people are so good in the parish especially. It really is a second home for a lot of people.”
After the parish decided to replace the nearly 20-year-old busted boiler, estimated costs were projected at around $34,000. Citino says an additional $6,000 or so was needed to finance costs of portable heaters and fuel to heat the building.
While the boiler was intended to arrive shortly after the booking was made in mid-November, complications with the order caused the new system to not arrive until Jan. 2.
Throughout the holiday season, Cintino and the Rev. Monsignor Hugh J. Shields were forced to turn on the portable heaters as early as 4 a.m. to ensure heat was flowing for the early-morning Masses. While they say the space was comfortable, churchgoers still sat in the pews bundled up with hats, scarves and gloves.
So, for more than a month, as winter chills steadily slipped into the church, parishioners took matters into their own hands, brainstorming and executing creative avenues of fundraising.
“Despite the different languages, it’s the same faith, and we are one church,” Shields said. “Differences, of course, language, culture, all different pieces, but when all is kind of scraped away, it’s the one faith and people share it.”
Different demographics of the church, which hosts liturgies in four languages, threw their own ethnic flairs into their charities — and their dishes.
During the initial wave of campaigning, members of the Indonesian community sold thousands of satay — skewered and grilled meat — on the patio of the Aquinas Center after services, which Shields says sees up to 1,000 attendees each weekend. The Hispanic community also sold an abundance of tamales following services. These sales were weaved together by contributions from the church’s Concerned Black Catholics group, Vietnamese parishioners and several other congregations.
Just this past weekend, the church hosted a spaghetti dinner in the parish’s lower hall, aiming to sell 500 servings at $10 per plate.
“Each community really pitched in into the work,” said Clara Jerez, pastoral associate of the church. “We have a lot of people that jump in to cover whatever was needed…This is a very unique church, I have to say. This is a very unique place to worship. We have so many communities, and we all mix together, like working for one purpose — like it should be. There is no separation when it’s matters of the church. Everybody feels this is a safe, safe place to come and worship.”
An integral part of the parish includes the Aquinas Center located behind the church. The space, which was formerly a convent, currently serves as an education and outreach facility particularly for immigrant communities migrating into the immediate South Philly neighborhoods.
Since 2013, the center provides a plethora of resources, including English-speaking classes and immigrant legal services. According to the parish’s website, the center, which was established in 2013, welcomes more than 600 children, youth and adults every week. It also partners with local organizations and colleges, such as the Catholic Social Services, Bethanna, La Puerta Abierta, Girl Scouts, the University of Pennsylvania and Al Anon, also according to its website.
“We speak all different languages,” said Joanne Gledhill, a parishioner and religion and programs coordinator and teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas School. “I speak 10 languages by smiling and saying, ‘Hello.’ But, we come together for everything…It’s a safe haven for a lot of immigrants.”
As a matter of fact, this is not the first time parishioners joined forces for the welfare of the church. A couple of years ago, more than $100,000 was raised for a new roof.
Church staff and parishioners say Saint Thomas Aquinas Church is one of the poorest parishes in the area with many of its funding coming from the community. On top of that, Shields says about five years ago, the parish met with representatives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which told him that it couldn’t afford to supply full funding in the event of a damaged infrastructure.
While a bulk of the boiler funds came from within the parish, the church also received significant donations from surrounding religious institutions, such as Saint Paul Church in Bella Vista, St. Pius X in Broomall and St. Rose of Lima in West Philly.
“It’s one of the poorest parishes financially, but if you look at all of this, we’re the richest,” Gledhill said. “As long as we come together for all of this, we’ll survive.”
And the charities continue, as on Jan. 19, the Aquinas Center will host a family-friendly Winter Wonderland event in the center’s courtyard. The evening, featuring a fire pit, twinkling lights and patio heaters, asks for a $5 donation or a parish fundraising voucher that gets attendees a s’mores pack and hot beverage.
The event is intended to close the fundraising gap before the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas on Jan. 28.
And while several members of the parish say the boiler charities were nothing short of a blessing, the character of the church lies in the benevolence behind the process.
“(The boiler) is just a symbol, I think,” Jerez said. “It’s a symbol that’s putting people together. The people see this place as more than a church and just a piece of mechanics — like a safe home. We build community here. People feel like this is their community…we really feel like this is a second home for everybody. We put our hearts into this place.”
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