Kensington parish to close, and no Babe in sight this time

Babe Ruth in an Ascension of Our Lord uniform, playing at I and Tioga Streets in 1923 to raise funds. The parish will be closed Sunday.
Babe Ruth in an Ascension of Our Lord uniform, playing at I and Tioga Streets in 1923 to raise funds. The parish will be closed Sunday. (Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Archives)
Posted: September 27, 2012

Babe Ruth helped pay off its baseball field 89 years ago, but no angel is stepping in this time to save Ascension of Our Lord parish in Kensington.

Citing low Mass attendance, declining enrollment, mounting debts, and deteriorating buildings, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced Tuesday that the nearly century-old parish will close Sunday.

"If I say anything, I'll start to cry," said a parish secretary who declined to give her name.

She has worked at Ascension for 25 years. And while she said she understood Archbishop Charles J. Chaput's reasons for shutting it down - the 10th parish closure since his installation a year ago - "it still hurts," she said.

The Italianate-style granite church is fronted by Corinthian columns, flanked by a domed bell tower, and topped by a red-tile roof. Despite appearances, the interior is so deteriorated that both upper and lower sanctuaries are unsafe, said the Rev. Thomas Higgins, pastor of Holy Innocents parish and head of the deanery, or cluster of local parishes, to which Ascension belongs.

For the last year, the three weekend Masses have been said in a school hall, with combined attendance averaging less than 200. The school was shuttered last year because of low enrollment.

The church will not be maintained even as a worship site, the archdiocese said, because repairs would cost at least $3 million.

Parishioners were notified of the parish's fate two weeks ago.

With the closure of Ascension, 256 parishes remain in the five-county archdiocese. Citing a projected deficit of $6 million for the current fiscal year, Chaput said in a recent interview that he expected to close more parishes during the next 18 months, since many are facing declining membership and cannot support themselves.

"It's sad," said Higgins, whose parish, about 2.3 miles away, will absorb some of the Ascension parishioners who want to continue worshipping in a Catholic church. "It used to be a vibrant parish that served thousands of people."

Last year, it had only seven baptisms and two weddings - very low numbers, which the archdiocese saw as evidence that a return to vibrancy was unlikely.

Established in 1914, it originally served Irish working-class families, many of whose breadwinners were employed at the nearby Stetson and Philco factories.

One of the crowning moments in its long history came just nine years after its founding. The Rev. William Casey, Ascension's pastor, had built a parish baseball field at I and Tioga Streets to provide youngsters with "wholesome" activity, but was having a hard time paying off construction costs, according to archdiocesan archives.

So Casey, who also was chaplain for the Philadelphia Athletics, asked Ruth - already the star of the New York Yankees - if he would help raise money by playing on Ascension's team the next time the Yankees were in town.

The Babe, who had grown up in a Catholic orphanage in Baltimore, agreed. On Sept. 4, 1923, following an afternoon game against the A's, he suited up in the rectory at Westmoreland and F Streets, and made his way over to Boger Field, the parish ballpark.

Even Ruth was astonished by the crowd, estimated at 10,000, that turned out to see him play against the team from Lit Bros. He played first base flawlessly, and on one early pitch hit the ball an estimated 600 feet over the left-field fence. Under league rules, that only counted as a double, but he later scored the only run for Ascension, which lost to Lits, 2-1.

Ruth also autographed balls for $5 apiece - proceeds going to the parish - and tossed souvenir balls to children in the stands. Archdiocesan archives don't say how much the game raised but, thanks to Ruth, Casey was able to pay off the field. The parish thanked the Babe with the gift of a diamond stickpin.

But those glory days were long ago.

In the rowhouses along Westmoreland Street opposite the church, reaction to news of the closing ranged from subdued to indifferent.

"I'm sorry to hear about it," said Destiny Cebollero, 19, who lives across the street from the rectory.

She said she and her family belonged to Ascension when she was a girl, and that she had been an altar server and attended Catholic grammar school.

"But we're Baptists now," she said. "I have nothing against the Catholic Church," but she "feels more engaged in the Baptist services."

A 42-year-old woman who gave her name as Anita, and who was walking her 4-year-old daughter home from a nearby Christian school, murmured "Oh, my God" when she was told Ascension was about to close.

She said she had been raised Catholic in St. Veronica's parish - she called it "a good church" - but had joined an evangelical congregation when she turned 15.

"I like the speakers, the services, the friendliness after church. It feels like a family. People help you if you need it." She then nodded her head toward Ascension and said, "I'm sure there's really good people here, too."

Several people along the street indicated in broken English that they did not belong to Ascension, and several others shrugged when told it would soon close.

"I just moved here almost a year ago," said Patricia Weaver, who lives across the street. "So I really don't care."


Contact David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.


Inquirer staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick contributed to this article.

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