In the late 1970s and early 1980s, city churches faced tough times as population shifted to the suburbs. At St. Francis de Sales, registration dropped steadily from 4,233 families in 1963, to just 831 families by 1983, raising serious concerns about our finances and our future.
But a church is not a container for ancient rituals; it’s a meeting place for people striving to live their faith. So our small parish ignored its own worries for a larger sense of purpose, when wave after wave of desperately fleeing refugees swept into Philadelphia after the Vietnam War.
Our Lower Church became the archdiocesan “Mother Church” for incoming Vietnamese Catholics, with Reverend Anthony Vu Nhu Huynh, himself a refugee, as chaplain. Our then Pastor, Father Hilferty, who had been a travelling Navy chaplain in Vietnam for twenty years, understood the needs of the new arrivals. He also had a military-trained practical outlook, so that in 1980, Philadelphia Magazine reported that “Over the last five years this parish has become one of the most successful centers for Indo-Chinese refugee resettlement in the area.”
Philadelphia Magazine singled out longtime parishioner Betty Allen as “a one-woman resettlement agency” with a goal to “get the immigrants employed and off welfare and out of Stoneleigh Court (an underheated, barely livable shelter at 46th and Walnut) as fast as they can.” In 2012, Liz Campion recalled that Betty Allen’s “spiritual life was connected to the refugees of every major war or famine over the past forty years. She also volunteered services to the mentally ill, people recovering from addiction and to folks who needed job training after prison. She helped open a school to teach English as a second (or third, or fourth) language to her beloved refugees. She made sure the curriculum included classes to help parents better help their school-age children with homework.” And she invited people to use their various talents to get involved.
Lloyd Romero was point-person for Catholic Social Services. Liz recalls the work of local realtor Arthur Kane, who “moved people into affordable housing and through to home and business ownership and a stake in the American Dream.” Philadelphia Magazine mentions the efforts of “Woodland Presbyterian Church…and the West Philly Refugee Center of the Living Word Community on Chester Avenue,” as well as a “Jewish businessman who recently put up $1,000 for a Christmas party and blankets…” Joint efforts to help immigrants of all faiths, brought the neighborhood together.
Today, our parish is still relatively small, and the budget is tight, but as the world changes yet again, new needs are out there. Do we still have heart?