Across the region, Catholics say goodbye

The Rev. Mark Kunigonis celebrates Mass at the Church of the Holy Spirit for the last time.
The Rev. Mark Kunigonis celebrates Mass at the Church of the Holy Spirit for the last time. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 01, 2014

At the Church of the Holy Spirit in South Philadelphia on Sunday morning, scenes from the last five decades replayed in Barbara Diana's mind.

She saw the baptisms of her three children. She saw her son playing the part of Joseph in the children's Christmas pageant. She saw her daughter weeping at graduation from Holy Spirit School, distraught by the idea of leaving her friends for high school.

Diana said she can now relate to how her daughter felt that day. She, too, cried from a pew as her parish celebrated its last Mass before merging with a nearby parish.

The day was bittersweet, said Diana, 68, but she understands the Catholic Church must adapt to change. "God's got a plan," she said, as she sipped coffee with friends after Mass.

Similar scenes unfolded across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on Sunday as Catholics said goodbye to 16 parishes in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware Counties that will close Tuesday and merge with 17 others. The archdiocese will be left with 219 parishes, down from 266 in 2010, when it began reviewing and downsizing its facilities.

Holy Spirit will merge with St. Richard Parish, also in South Philadelphia. For longtime parishioners, it will be a return home to the parish from which Holy Spirit emerged in the early 1960s.

Then, St. Richard Church was overflowing with large Italian families and workers from the Navy Yard. So many children were enrolled in the elementary school that they had to attend in shifts. Another parish and school were needed, so Holy Spirit was born. Numbers dwindled over time, and when the parish school closed in 2012, it had just 40 students.

"You see the declining attendance each week," said Mary DeAngelis, who has attended Holy Spirit since it was founded. "You could practically count heads from your pew here."

As he blessed the church's statues and blue stained- glass windows on Sunday, the Rev. Mark Kunigonis encouraged the small crowd in the pews to think of the merger as a homecoming and reunion with St. Richard.

"And yes, it's sad," he said. "But the way things are going, it was going to happen one way or another."

Holy Spirit, and some of the other merging churches, will continue to have weekend Masses on a temporary basis.

Even though DeAngelis will return next Sunday, she said the church will be different with a new parish name and a new pastor.

"It is a loss of a loved one in a different sense," said the 76-year-old South Philadelphia resident. "It's a part of you."

Pastors of the merged parishes are responsible for forming transition teams with members from each former parish to make decisions about use of the church buildings, said archdiocesan spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin.

Meanwhile, the archdiocese might continue to merge parishes. Gavin said another group of churches will likely be named for review this fall, with decisions made about potential mergers by June 2015.

As at Holy Spirit, a sense of loss pervaded Notre Dame de Lourdes Church in Swarthmore on Sunday. There was also a sense of defiance and determination among parishioners who packed the large Delaware County church.

Notre Dame, which is appealing its merger to the archdiocese and preparing to take its fight to Rome, took up a collection for an "alumni association." That group will fight to keep Notre Dame open, the Rev. Karl Zeuner told parishioners.

The pastor told those gathered Sunday that the parish is still thriving and financially sound. He prayed that Notre Dame will remain open after its appeal, and encouraged parishioners to remember the love and support they have received from the parish.

"No one will ever take that away from you," Zeuner said, for which he received a standing ovation from the congregation.

Zeuner, who is now retiring, walked down the center aisle at the end of Mass with tears streaming down his cheeks. But parishioners did not say goodbye after Mass. Instead, they filled the parish hall, lingering over several tables of donated food and watching a slide show of photos.

"This was our life - it wasn't just our parish," said John Kennedy, who has been a parishioner at Notre Dame since he was born.

Now 51, Kennedy stood with childhood friends and recalled growing up at the parish and its elementary school. Kennedy, one of eight children, said his family helped begin the parish in the early 1960s. He remembered staying after school to help unload the nuns' groceries, playing basketball and Bingo in the parish hall, and doing yard work on the church grounds.

"It was like a funeral," he said of the final Mass. "It was like burying a friend. But I have faith."



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