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Philly’s St. Vincent de Paul embraces its label: ‘the social justice parish’

Members of the St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Community in the Germantown section of Philadelphia pose in front of a statue of the parish’s patron saint. (Mercedes Gallese)

An article the NCR describes St. Vincent’s Parish as “the social justice parish”. The article is part of a regular series drawing inspiration from Pope Francis’ concept of the church as “Field Hospital”.

At many levels, the parish already lives many of the priorities expressed for the Congregation of the Mission in the Lines of Action approved at the recent General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission.

Vincentian Fr. Sy Peterka, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in the Germantown section here, likes how people describe his congregation.

“That’s the social justice parish,” Philadelphia Catholics will tell him.

If one equates social justice with efforts to reach the poor and the threatened, Peterka can build a good case for the label. St. Vincent offers:

  • An emergency food pantry;
  • Participation in the “New Sanctuary” movement, assisting immigrants to gain legal status;
  • Welcoming to gay, lesbian and transgendered Catholics;
  • A twinning relationship with a parish in El Salvador;
  • A program focused on racial reconciliation;
  • Assistance to poor parents who send their children to Catholic schools;
  • Shelters for the long-term homeless, those transitioning to work, and for former convicts;
  • A Catholic school whose enrollment has increased from 225 students to 425 over the past four years, drawing parents — many non-Catholics — seeking an alternative to the hard-pressed Philadelphia public schools;
  • Active membership in Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), an ecumenical organization devoted to social justice concerns, such as minimum wage legislation and racial justice.

And that is just a partial list.

“There is a sense of ownership among the parishioners,” said Sharon Browning, a self-described “Germantown Catholic” with a long affiliation with the parish.

Creative ministry is in part a response to the parish’s location. It is the last of what were once 12 parishes in Germantown, a section of Philadelphia that features older restored houses, spacious parks and some of the most difficult poverty in the city. The Philadelphia archdiocese has closed scores of parishes in recent years, both in the city and in nearby suburbs.

 

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR‘s Field Hospital series on parish life and a professor of journalism at St. John’s University, New York.]

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