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October 18, 2007     581 Words

Philadelphia’s Passionate City Priest

CINCINNATI—Today, Tiffany Watkins exudes vitality and happiness. Two years ago, it was a different story: A sobbing Tiffany begged entrance to St. Malachy’s, a respite in North Philadelphia’s rough neighborhoods. Father John Patrick McNamee was quickly summoned. His compassionate listening and prayer with Tiffany turned the tide of despair for her. “I owe him my life,” she says.

Tiffany is not alone: Many have found sanctuary in St. Malachy’s Parish, its school and its ministries. They are all safe havens under the guidance of this beloved priest.

The story of Father McNamee, his parish and his people are described in St. Anthony Messenger’s November cover story, “St. Malachy: Philadelphia’s Island of Grace.” Author Carol Ann Morrow spent two days with “Father Mac,” along with staff members of the parish and school. After October 22, the article will be found at:

Father Mac is certainly an original. He has four published books: two works each of prose and poetry. His 1993 memoir, Diary of a City Priest, was made into an award-winning, feature-length film in 2001. Father Mac, however, would rather shift the focus from himself to St. Malachy Parish and all the people who work together to keep it running.

The parish counts 400 families. People drive to North Philly from the suburbs on Sunday mornings, despite the neighborhood’s 127 violent deaths in the first half of this year alone. It’s the warmth and holiness of this parish that draws people of different backgrounds. St. Malachy is a Catholic house of hospitality open to people of all faiths. “It’s about seeing another human being in need,” says Regina Young, St. Malachy’s finance manager. “That’s what this place does. It makes you more generous.”

Ruth Thornton-Payne, principal of St. Malachy School, feels a deep sense of belonging to the parish and knows that Father Mac is an essential component. Ruth graduated from St. Malachy’s, became a teacher for 27 years and then its principal four years ago. It is “a place I call home,” she says. “Father Mac knew me when I was a little girl. He is dedicated to improving St. Malachy School.”

Just this year, Father Mac—assisted by the school development committee—began an “Adopt-a-Student” program to offset the costs of tuition ($4,500 per student) at St. Malachy. Donors pledge a monthly gift or a single payment of $300. Students—and their sponsors—see the school as a “small island of safety and grace and faith,” their pastor says.

Father Mac also serves as president of the Ludlow Youth Community Center. “I am as worried about the conditions in the public school as I am about our own school,” he says. Thus, a tutorial program for neighborhood students is now housed in the Ludlow Youth Community Center as well as an after-school program for students in St. Malachy’s cafeteria. Typically, around 50 students are present. He has also supported the return of North Philadelphia’s Catholic Worker houses, which sponsor a free health clinic.

Father Mac is no doubt exhilarated when helping people. Yvonne Monroe, an admirer and friend of the city priest, says it best: “Father John McNamee works with dangerous and desperate folks. He is an outside enforcer in the community. He is a soul brother.”


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