Welcome! The dawn of a blended parish

PATRICK MCPEAK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Knights of Peter Claver helped new parishioners feel at home.
PATRICK MCPEAK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Knights of Peter Claver helped new parishioners feel at home.
Posted: November 04, 2013

MONSIGNOR Wilfred Pashley has pastored both St. Rose of Lima parish in Overbrook and St. Barbara parish in Wynnefield simultaneously for the past 13 years, so when St. Rose merged into St. Barbara last Sunday morning, he served as a spiritual bridge between the two.

The 76-year-old priest's grandfatherly presence was deeply felt from the moment he arrived at Lebanon Avenue near 54th Street in a black Toyota open convertible, accompanied by a child holding an ancient wooden cross and leading a caravan of St. Rose parishioners to worship at St. Barbara for the first time.

"We've got the best pastor in the whole wide world," said Regina Robinson-Rush of Wynnefield, who has attended St. Barbara for 23 years. "He's real. He speaks to us on a regular level. He's one of us. He's a good guy."

That feeling seemed universal when 300 of the faithful from the newly merged churches applauded as Bishop Timothy Senior, rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, ceremonially handed the St. Barbara key to Pashley and said, "I entrust you with this parish church."

"My God is awesome!" exclaimed Barbara Cobia, 69, of Wynnefield, accompanied by her grandson James Lewis, 11, and his sister, Ivy, 6.

"I feel loved and I try to give love," she said, excited about welcoming the St. Rose parishioners. "This church is like home."

Why two became one

The merger was necessary because by 2011, Sunday Mass attendance had dropped to 143 at St. Rose of Lima and 126 at St. Barbara.

But last Sunday, the merged congregation filled the pews at St. Barbara.

Sunlight filtered through the 92-year-old church's stained glass windows as Bishop Senior said, "We celebrate the coming together of two faith communities. We install Monsignor Pashley, who needs no introduction."

Everyone applauded, then clapped even louder when Senior said, "This is not something he had to do. He's at the age of retirement, you know."

Change - and a constant

Senior said, "There are changes in every one of our lives. Jesus Christ is the same forever. We can hold on to him. He walks with us."

The bishop's homily focused on a passage from the Book of Sirach: "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds. It does not rest till it reaches its goal. Nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds."

Senior read a decree from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, then told Pashley, "Always be a loving father."

After churchgoers gave Pashley a standing ovation, he delivered his first words to his newly merged congregation. "Please don't be afraid," he said. "It's not another homily."

People laughed and relaxed. After thanking everyone from both churches who spent months planning the merger, Pashley introduced state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, a longtime gospel radio broadcaster and ordained minister, who couldn't contain her joy at seeing the pews packed with 300 men, women and children.

"Does everybody in Wynnefield and West Philadelphia attend this church?" Williams asked, delighting the crowd. "When we all get up yonder, it will look like this."

After Mass, people gathered in the church parking lot, where Pashley had arranged a tailgate-style lunch to encourage both congregations to get to know one another over burgers, hotdogs, chicken and corn on the cob.

"He's a hands-on priest, a really good priest," said Ruth Hargraves of Wynnefield, who has been attending St. Barbara for 41 years, and brought five grandchildren to Sunday Mass.

Prayers for unity: Answered

"It took a lot of prayer and a lot of sleepless nights to have everybody here today with no hard feelings," Hargraves said. "Monsignor Pashley is gone from St. Rose but he's not gone because he brought everyone with him."

Bishop Senior told the Daily News, "He really loves his people very much. Given the uniqueness of the challenge, it would be hard to find someone who could do this as smoothly. It was a win-win."

Hargraves agreed that Pashley, who was kissing and hugging everyone on the long food line, was the key to the successful merger. "Once you open people's minds up, you get to the heart," Hargraves said. "He's over 75. He can still kneel. I can't get down on one knee."

She laughed, watching her beloved pastor warm up the chilly parking lot with his loving spirit, working the crowd until people were smiling with him, feeling good, feeling they'd come home.

Twitter: @DanGeringer

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