God's global flock represented at W. Philly's St. Cyprian

COURTESY OF CATHOLICPHILLY.COM Archbishop Valerian Okeke (left) confirms a member of Philly's Igbo community at St. Cyprian in 2009. A Mass is said in the Igbo language at 1 p.m. Sundays.
COURTESY OF CATHOLICPHILLY.COM Archbishop Valerian Okeke (left) confirms a member of Philly's Igbo community at St. Cyprian in 2009. A Mass is said in the Igbo language at 1 p.m. Sundays.
Posted: January 20, 2014

WHEN THE CATHOLIC parishes of Saint Carthage and Transfiguration of Our Lord merged in 2000, word went out that the pastor at the new West Philly "mega-parish" was keen to welcome the neighborhood's recent African immigrants, along with parishioners from both churches.

"I wanted to figure out how to incorporate them into this worship community," said Monsignor Federico Britto, the pastor. "I didn't want them to feel like outsiders."

Mission accomplished.

On any given Sunday, the landmark 1924 building on Cobbs Creek Parkway welcomes some 500 parishioners to two English-language Masses, followed by a Mass in the Nigerian Igbo language, followed on most Sundays by yet another Mass, in French, for African immigrants from Francophone countries like the Ivory Coast.

The liturgy stays the same as the various faith communities come and go from the church building - last Sunday, all heard the gospel in which Jesus is baptized by Saint John the Baptist - but a gorgeous variety of hymns fills the sanctuary as the multilingual day of worship progresses.

Arrive at 1 p.m., when the Igbo Mass begins, and the joyfully melodic service will transport you from the parkway in West Philadelphia to the hinterlands of southeastern Nigera. That mass attracts about 50 churchgoers, in Western and traditional dress - a great many of whom worship from the choir stand.

Who we are: Saint Cyprian Roman Catholic Church is an early example of the Philadelphia Archdiocese's ongoing consolidation. (Britto's advice to others: "Be patient.") The parish has about 2,000 members.

Saint Cyprian, the saint, was an African nobleman who converted to Catholicism circa 200 A.D. and became a priest, then a bishop, then a martyr. (He was beheaded.)

Where we worship: The church is at 525 Cobbs Creek Parkway. It holds three Sunday Masses weekly (8 a.m. and 11 a.m. in English, 1 p.m. in Igbo) and a fourth Mass most weeks (at 3 p.m., in African French).

The 11 a.m. English Mass is so packed that six Eucharistic ministers fan out to distribute Communion.

What we believe: "That God is a good God, a forgiving God - that God works in and through us," Britto said. "I always tell people, 'You know, Saint Peter denied Jesus three times, and yet Jesus still worked through Saint Peter to establish his Church on earth. It's the same thing today.'

"God's a faithful God," he said. "We may detour from God, but if God wants us, he will still get us."

What we're known for: Outreach to African immigrants is one hallmark. The Archdiocese pays for a Nigerian priest - currently the Rev. Father Kieran Udeze - to relocate to Philly for a three-year term to minister at Saint Cyprian to members of the region's Igbo Catholic community. Another priest commutes up on Sundays from Washington, D.C., to lead the French African Masses.

Saint Cyprian's members also reach out to their neighbors in West Philly to spread the word about the church, some pinning Saint Cyprian buttons to their lapels. "It's surprising how that helps," Britto said.

Good works: Their most significant neighborhood outreach is a food bank at the church that serves about 100 people every Monday and Wednesday. On the last Saturday of the month, parishioners prepare hot meals for those in need.

"God moment": "There's so many!" Britto said. He likes to tell the story of a parishioner who saw a child get hit by a car at 63rd and Market streets. As the child lay waiting for an ambulance, one of his parishioners lay alongside - in the middle of the street - offering comfort.

Britto happened to arrive as the scene unfolded. "For me, that was a God moment," he said. "That parishioner was there at the right time, and she jumped into action." In the end, the child was fine.

"Jerry Maguire" moment: In the annals of Saint Cyprian parish life, there are many of these as well. Britto, a big movie buff, will often tell parishioners that he wants to meet them wherever they are.

He phrases it the way Tom Cruise did to Cuba Gooding Jr.: "Help me help you. Help. Me. Help. You. Help me to help you journey together toward the kingdom."

The pastor's other hat: In addition to leading the West Philly mega-parish, Britto is Supreme Spiritual Director to all of the Knights of Saint John - a Catholic religious, charitable and fraternal organization similar to the Knights of Columbus - in every corner of the globe.

One of his roles is to celebrate Mass at the international order's biannual convention. He also writes about spiritual matters for its journal.

Words of hope: "Never give up hope, because God is with us," Britto said. "In our most challenging moments, He's there.

"The grace of God is always there. We just can't give up."

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