The recent announcement that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will close almost 50 schools throughout the Archdiocese is indeed a stinging wound that hurts everyone that has had the benefit of Catholic education. I admit, the proposed closing of Saint Gabriel School distresses me because my very roots of my Catholic beliefs were instilled there by the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the generations of priests that FAITHFULLY served thousands of faithful Catholics from the parish’s inception. The closing of a school, or for that matter the closing of a parish marks a life cycle that has come full term, not happening overnight but rather taking generations of a declining spiral based on many, many points and issues. First, I emphatically support efforts to keep Saint Gabriel School and Parish fully operational, not for nostalgic and sentimental reasons;but because there is a genuine need for educational and spiritual nurturing in Gray’s Ferry. One of the least read writings of the late Father Karl Rahner, was Towards a Church in the 2st Century, which speculated that Catholicism would experience great difficulties in the United States in the 21st century if considerations were not made to compensate for, shifting demographics of ethnic populations, the grave immoral invention and use of the birth control pill and Catholic’s rejection of the official prohibition against artificial methods of birth control, and declining numbers of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. Well, we can now say after looking into the rear view mirror, that Father Rahner was our own 20th century Nostradamus. What most of us also forget is the great industrial demise of the United States since the end of the Second World War, second and third generations of immigrant’s children, living the American dream and escaping the confines of the city to the sprawling suburbs post WWII and finaly and regretfully White Flight from the urban environment. While we all lament the closure parishes and schools, how many of us would honestly return to live in the brick row homes of our youth, give up a driveway with a 2 car garage, a (dreaded) lawn that always needs to be cut, and a large home with 4 or 5 bedrooms with lots of closet space to hold as George Carlin most famously caricatured in his conceptualization of a house as just a big place to store more,”things.”
Growing up in Gray’s Ferry during the 1960′s and 1970′s marked the last vestiges of the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution, and surge of Irish immigration to Philadelphia. When, we were growing up in the area, there were mills that made clothing, factories that made furniture, refineries that produced oil and gasoline to fuel the industries of the 19th and 20th centuries, DuPont Chemicals, Barrat’s Chemicals, and dozens of industrial installations ran 3 shifts 24/7 to built “American Made Things”, from ships at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, to clothing, military tanks and vehicles and even beer and whiskey (Ortliebs and Publickers). All of these jobs are gone, and frankly fueled the nation and the world from Gray’s Ferry. The nation’s first Federal Arsenal provided munitions and clothing on Gray’s Ferry Avenue until its demolition in the late 1950s, the river provided hundreds of jobs for Irish immigrants in the area loading and unloading coal barges in order to keep the flames of industry and in most cases home heating burning. The birthplace of the United States Naval Academy in a building designed by William Strickland, proudly served as initially an educational institution and then a rest home for retired U.S.Navy sailors. Now that same property, has been developed into luxury condominiums and the local industries have moved offshore to places like Thailand, India and the former Eastern Block of the Soviet Union.
Saint Gabriel’s Parish and School has seen all of these changes, including the painful race riots of the 1960′s, the traumatic changes of Vatican II, that initiated the end of local eating establishments that supplied fish for our now cast-off tradition of abstinence on Fridays all year around.I would give anything to enjoy a dinner of fried oysters, oyster stew or a piece of flounder or a crabcake from any of the local bars( or tap rooms,as we called them) in Gray’s Ferry. While my wife thinks I am ancient, there was indeed a time that there were icemen, milkmen, ragmen, itinerant window washers and street cleaners in Saint Gabriel Parish.Â However, that era of Americana has been in rapid decline since the Second World War, and Catholic parishes unfortunately have felt the seismic effects more directly.
Another consideration regarding Catholic education that is often forgotten are the countless men and female religious that taught in the Catholic school system, well into their 80′s teaching children by the thousands for decades for a stipend of about $100.00 per month. Remember, Mother Maria Robert, who was not only principal of Saint Gabriel’s Schol, but prior of the convent of Sisters. She taught, administered, cleaned, mediated and oversaw a student population of over 2000 children and perhaps 30 I.H.M. Sisters for about $100.00 per month, with room, board and meals included. The decline of female and male religious as the primary educators in Catholic Schools directly affected the cost of Catholic education because laity now were required to fill the positions of religious, that were virtually free labor to provide Catholic education. These women, had 50-60 students per class, lived in community, wore a dozen layers of religious habits and they still scrubbed floors with mechanical floor polishers, controlled 1000 kids with a “clicker” and went back to a convent every night for a community meal (the choice of which was not theirs), evening prayer, night prayer and perhaps a short respite of television watching whatever Mother Superior wanted. Wow….what a charmed life. We forget the vocational sacrifices these men and women made to spread the Gospel to the parochial school system.They even had to staff, The Children’s Mass” on Sunday, making sure their classroom charges behaved through the changing liturgical results of Vatican II.
Priests in the parish of course had life quite different. They called the shots, they had cars and they made all of the real decisions about the school, church convent and rectory, without having to be in a classroom all day will hundreds of sugar hyped children that really couldn’t care about the right angle of a triangle, or the proper Palmer Method of using a cartridge pen (This author is living proof of the failure of the Palmer Method, I recently reviewed my 6th grade report card and noticed my grade for handwriting was a meager 75)! However, the priests of the parish did not have permanent deacons, extraordinary ministers of communion, lay teachers, outreach assistants and CCD offices. They celebrated all of the Sacraments, said Mass daily, including funerals and grave services, visited and took communion to the sick and infirmed, heard confessions on Saturdays from 2-5 and during the week for the school children and even like Father now Msgr.Shoemaker gave out the report cards quarterly in either a cassock or a priest’s rabat and suitcoat. Report card day was often dreaded because Fr. Shoemaker looked over each report card and offered words of encouragement to each relieved student. In those days, Saint Gabriel had an actie parish life, a Sodality of the B.V.M., the Men’s League of Prayer, C.Y.O., Block Collections, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament on Sunday afternoons, Catholic league grade school sporting events, basketball, football, bowling. The parish priest drew the winning tickets at the weekly 50/50 raffle that offset the parish’s high school tax paid to the diocese. Priests also, like Msgr. Joseph Waldron( while puffing a cigar) sat in the rectory basement and counted the collection with the men of the Holy Name Society and got it ready for afternoon pickup on Sunday by armored car for deposit to the bank. Priests at Saint Gabriel and all of the other parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia rotated weeks of “on call” which meant they fielded the phone calls, requests to write Mass cards, hear confessions and oversee the nightly running of the parish rectory on alternating weeks. Often called out to administer Extreme Unction, or what is now the Anointing of the Sick to those dying and sometimes those that were perpetually dying over 40 years, but just wanted to call out the priest for a chat.
Weekly Mass began at 5:30 am until the High Mass, with a full male choir at 12:15pm. Today, Catholic parishes are forced to endure a cadre of evangelical/Protestant music, usually with a strumming Sally and no real appreciation of the liturgical and theological importance of music in the Liturgy, and a disdain for anything that contains Latin or polyphonic chant as old fashioned or out of touch with the modern Church. And of course, every parish has the Evita like, arms waiving leader of song, that provides a Mitch Miller touch to the Sacred Liturgy and leads the community in songs that have been stripped of any references to gender, in concession to political correctness, despite the fact that the phrase, Sons of God is intended to be inclusive of all women as well.
I also need to respond to the allegations that Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary is and continues to be a breeding ground for pedophiles and sex offenders that eventually become Catholic priests. As a Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary graduate, I speak for myself, non-ordained and the ordained alike that lead morally upright lives as priests , married men and some even still celibate men of faith. I have known hundreds of Seminary companions since 1978 and am proud to have been associated with them as men , as priests and as fellow graduates. To condemn the entire population and educational purpose of the institution because of the actions of a small percentage of the thousands of men that have called Saint Charles , Borromeo Seminary their home and alma mater for over 175 years is an gross exaggeration of implied complicity that implies all of us( myself included) were pedophiles in training. Such ignorance and exaggeration is not only reflective of a Catholic population that is unable to comprehend the widespread effects of the clergy sex scandal, but also neglects to understand and appreciate the fact that without priests, there is no Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our Catholic faith. Because some priests were not faithful to their promises of celibacy and obedience does not indite all graduates of Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary both ordained, non-ordained, and those legitimately released from their priestly, or deaconÂ obligations as pedophiles and sex offenders. There are those that proclaim this on places like FaceBook and Twitter that hold this opinion, some even the siblings of Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary graduates that perpetuate this erroneous understanding of priestly formation. I have known hundreds of priests, deacons and seminarians since grade school and have a great respect for all of them and continue to pray for those that might have erred as part of my Catholic obligation to fulfill the priestly prayer of Jesus, “That they may be one.” The task of being a priest in today’s agnostic or often atheistic society is to put it mildly, stressful and lonely at best.
Returning to the potential closure of Saint Gabriel’s School…perhaps and regretfully the time has come to reinvent and reinvigorate the parochial system of education as we have known it over the past 100 years. If indeed one really wants to save Saint Gabriel School, move back into Gray’s Ferry, enroll your children in the parish, attend weekly Mass, relearn to parallel park and put currency other than coinage into the collection basket and resurrect a neighborhood that has been subjected to multiple injustices, some self inflicted that have caused the current situation to exist. Most importantly return to celebrating Catholicism, by not only endorsing Catholic education, but by attending Mass, contributing appropriately and becoming active participants in the parish family.
While many will read this article and disagree with me, you have that right. I personally would love to return to a nostalgic Saint Gabriel Parish of times gone bye, but the reality is quite different than the memories. Rising costs of operations, teacher’s salaries, the lack of active Catholics despite the inflated real estate prices in the neighborhood still does not indicate an area of sustainable economic or Catholic growth. If 200 former families of Saint Gabriel Parish would move back to Gray’s Ferry and once again call it home, and actively participate in the fiscal, spiritual and temporal life of the school, parish and neighborhood….count me in….and I will see you at Dean’s for a round. However, without people, revenue and youth population, coupled with the opportunities for viable employment Saint Gabriel and 48 other parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia need to envision a new model of Catholicism for the 2st century, that is rooted in a grass roots faith, anchored by a Catholic family, following Catholic traditions and contributing to the support of a parish complex before there will be a reversal of closures at Saint Gabriel and other parishes throughout the United States. If every Catholic would just attend Mass and contribute 25.00 per week in the collection basket…imagine the revitalization Catholicism would experience. It is time to let nostalgia go, place the scandals in their correct perspective, focus on stirring up the Holy Spirit to provide viable vocations and come out of the closed Upper Room, and like the Apostles leave fear behind and proclaim our Catholic faith and educational morals and values as exemplary models for faithful Catholics, evangelization and conversion to our faith and using the Catholic family as the cornerstone of our faith that will restore Christ’s prominence to a Catholic world full of fragile peace and broken promises.
Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that reflects on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphiaâ€™s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology & history degrees program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. He writes daily at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com , http://catholicsacredarts.blogspot.com . Hugh writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences atÂ http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com.
He also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delawareâ€™s Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
Hugh welcomes your comments via firstname.lastname@example.org.