On a recent birthday trip to my hometown of Philadelphia I wanted to retrace some of the steps my ancestors once walked. Unbeknownst to many of my friends I am a huge geneology nerd and researching my families past has been a passion for over a decade. So, why talk about geneology on a music blog you say? A good question indeed.
One of the places I’ve always wanted to visit was a church in South Philly where my great-grandparents were wed in 1906; many of my great-aunts and uncles were baptised there as well, so natually I had to see what it looked like and gain some insight into the past. The church is St. Charles Borromeo and is located on the corners of 20th and Christian streets; it is a magnificent structure that dominates the corner with a profound statement of just how much care, detail, and devotion workers put into churches built in the 19th century. One of the interesting things upon approaching the church was my mothers initial comment when she noticed several African-American folks entering the church for the 9:30 a.m. service, she said “hmmm, I don’t know if this is the same church these days”, a classic comment from a woman who was brought up in the “Archie Bunker” blue-collar 1950′s household of rural Philadelphia. But her comment did get me thinking about how diverse Philadelphia is as a city and how much of a transition it has undergone over the past 100 years; especially the ethnicity defined neighborhoods that rarely truly exist in the robust nature that they once had in during the turn of the last century. You need to remember that my great-grandparents were literally off the boat from Ireland, so at one time this church’s congregation was either entirely Irish or Italian at one time.
Upon entering the church it was clear to see that times had changed with the ethnographic make up of the participants, but regardless it has remained a Roman Catholic church. To be honest it was a bit uneasy of a feeling, knowing that the sentimental ethnic qualities of the church had changed, although the interior had not and probably still looked as it did on the day my great-grandparents were married, it did not hold nearly the anticipation of mystery that I had expected; actually it presented another mystery entirely. What was the identity of this church now?
As the mass began it was clear to see that the church was going to perform a traditional Catholic mass and followed the entire script to a tee, except for a twist, Gospel! Yes, that’s right Gospel music integrated within a Catholic mass and it was incredible. I began to think to myself “what a little diamond in the rough”; to think that the dynamics of the neighborhood had changed since 1906, and with the infusion of the few African-American Catholics a blend of both styles had resulted without any one being more dominant than the other. The selection of songs during the service was incredible; and in a traditional Gospel style a man played an upright piano while a group of both White and Black singers intertwined harmonies with so much emotion that I was in disbelief. This church was exhibiting exactly what Philadelphia supposedly represents - A City of Brotherly love.
After the service I took some time to talk to Father Ed Kuczynski who led the mass and basically is the only priest left to manage the one service a week and said the church is more like a “hobby” these days to the diocese; the school and housing for the sisters and priests have been sold off to private developer. The church and mass are held as a courtesy to the continued interest of the one sunday mass offered; he too agreed that out of all of the churches in Philly this was a true gem and sadly often overlooked by the people of the city.
Interestingly during our conversation about the how the mass had a Gospel feel he said that the African-American community introduced itself to the church shortly after World War One; and that the church has always been a unique place sought out by the Black community that embraces diversity and exemplifies it in every way. Sadly with the majority of younger people (myself included) no longer attending mass on a regular basis the future of the church is in question; often relying on the bleak donations to provide to the poor of the city. Not the mention the current national trend of the priest child sex abuse scandals rocking most U.S. cities, Philadelphia not being exempt.
If you are in Philadelphia or live in the city and feel like enlightening yourself on a truly worthwhile experience, check out a 9 a.m. service at St. Charles Borromeo in South Philly; and tell your friends! Afterwards head to Reading Terminal and get a good p0rk loin with brocolli rabe sandwich at D’inics!
If you do go, let us know what you think.