In Spring Garden, a Mass production

Posted: March 25, 2014

A TINY but tough little woman climbed the marble stairs of St. Francis Xavier Church and went straight for the Rev. Philip Bochanski, who was greeting guests in the doorway.

"We're mobbin' youse!" she told the priest.

Bochanski smiled. He'd been expecting the mob. He'd hoped it would come. It was all part of the Mass-ter plan.

These days it's not so common to find masses of people at Mass. Dwindling Catholic congregations have led to empty pews in cavernous but beautiful churches.

But yesterday morning, the church popularly known as St. Franny's, at 24th and Green streets in Spring Garden, became the site of Philly's first "Mass Mob," a growing movement to bring Catholics from across the region together in one church for one service to celebrate "Mass en masse."

The response was massive. Bochanski said on a typical Sunday he sees 100 people at each of the church's four Masses. Yesterday, he saw 400 people at one Mass alone.

"It was exciting for me to see so many people there, but it was more exciting for me to see the enthusiasm on their faces," he said.

The masstermind behind Philly's Mass Mob is Ben DiFrancesco, 28, a St. Franny's parishioner and software engineer who was inspired by a similar event in Buffalo, N.Y. Once he got the Philadelphia Archdiocese's OK, he created a Mass Mob website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. It took off from there.

"I didn't know what to expect," DiFrancesco said. "When I started, I said, 'Man, if we get 50 extra people, that would be great.' "

DiFrancesco said a number of parishes reached out to him and expressed interest in holding the next Philly Mass Mob, and he may use social media to put the decision up for a vote.

Those in attendance yesterday included a mother and daughter in matching sweatshirts and a mother and daughter in matching lace veils. The worshippers were of many races, ages and backgrounds.

Before the start of the service, as the pews filled in and light streamed down from stained-glass windows, a young man in jeans and a T-shirt that read "PRAY FOR LIFE" loudly repeated the Hail Mary at the back of the church as if he were, indeed, praying for his life. During the service, babies cried, cellphones went off and congregants performed the time-honored stand-kneel-sit choreography.

The Mass was, as Bochanski had promised it would be before it began, "just a Mass." But for those in attendance, celebrating their faith with a full house was anything but typical.

Renee Merriman, 60, who was born into St. Franny's and has been a parishioner there ever since, said she hadn't seen a crowd like that since grade school.

"I was extremely surprised by the turnout," she said. "It was really good, uplifting and wonderful."

Julie Kelley, 51, a member of St. Charles Borromeo parish in Drexel Hill, said she received an email about the Mass Mob and thought it was a great idea.

"I'd love to see the Mass just overfill the church out into the street until we have to have speakers and monitors," she said.

Tim Dennis, 48, a member of St. Patrick's Church about 100 miles away in York, Pa., was happy to see so many young adults.

"It's just inspiring in this day and age, realizing that you're not walking alone and that there are other faithful," he said.

During his homily, Bochanski said, "Sometimes, it's the smallest things that make the biggest difference."

Sometimes, just showing up, as so many did yesterday, is one of those small things.

On Twitter: @FarFarrAway



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