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St. Malachy: Philadelphia's Island of Grace
By Carol Ann Morrow
Father John McNamee is a veteran urban pastor, poet and activist bringing beauty and light into North Philadelphia's darkest corners.


Rectory of the Open Door
Life in Ordinary Time
Around the City—and Its Suburbs
How This Priest Became This Pastor
Soul Brother
From the Pen of an Urban Priest


TODAY, Tiffany Watkins exudes vitality, confidence and happiness. Two years ago last July, a sobbing Tiffany begged entrance to St. Malachy’s sanctuary, a rare respite in North Philadelphia’s rough environs. When Olga Richardson answered the rectory bell, she could tell that Tiffany needed more than a place to pray. Olga summoned Father John Patrick McNamee.

His compassionate listening and prayer with her in time of trial turned the tide of despair for her. “I owe him my life,” Tiffany says.

My two days in tandem with St. Malachy’s pastor reveal bountiful evidence that Father Mac, as he’s usually known, could call in a host of debts owed. Since the priest keeps no such ledger, St. Anthony Messenger determined to chronicle this vanishing style of ministry: one diocesan priest in a depressed neighborhood, where he is also a community activist whose willingness to beg, borrow, barter and plead keeps an elementary school thriving. “It’s important that the Church stay here, close to all that need,” he says.

His like may exist elsewhere, as Father Mac insists, but surely there’s no twin. This man 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, thinks this interview should be about St. Malachy Parish and all the people who keep it going.

Pastor and parish—in this case, the story’s much the same. “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.”

Rectory of the Open Door

Early in his priesthood, John Patrick McNamee spent five years as a curate at Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. In the wake of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963), Cardinal John Krol (then archbishop) asked the young priest to be a member of the archdiocese’s first liturgical commission.

Though he requested placement in poorer parishes, liturgy continues to be the defining milieu of the priest’s life. He relishes Sunday celebrations, for which he prepares diligently. Both his prose and poetry frequently reference the seasons of the Church.

His Sunday congregation at St. Malachy Parish, where he’s been pastor since 1984 (administrator since December 1982), is a respectable size. Olga, whose official title is chair of the Worship and Service Committee, also keeps the numbers. She counts 400 families, part neighborhood residents (once Irish, now black), part downtowners and part suburban friends. And people do drive from the suburbs to North Philly on Sunday mornings, despite 127 violent deaths in the first half of this year alone.

The pastor welcomes people in—most often by name—and sees them out again. He will probably see them again at after-Mass hospitality in the school lunchroom. Father Mac’s homily serves a mix of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus, W.H. Auden and Dag Hammarskjöld, alongside St. Ignatius, some Fathers of the Church and the Sunday readings. Both a tiny newborn with proud parents and a couple celebrating 50 years of marriage are recognized at the 11 a.m. Mass I attend, the latter given the altar flowers when Mass is over. The parish has a family feeling.

On the first Sunday of the month, the Catholic Peace Fellowship/Pax Christi convenes in the rectory after 11 a.m. Mass. St. Malachy rectory doors (kitchen, front and back—which is most used) open as wide as do those of the church. The Peace Fellowship meets in the darkly palatial dining room whose formal décor dates back to then-Auxiliary Bishop Edmond Prendergast (1897-1911). The lengthy dining table seats at least a dozen—and a few more chairs are needed for Sunday’s meeting.

Between Sunday Masses each week, hermit Richard Withers drops in at the kitchen entrance to say hello. Richard explains that 200-300 hermits such as himself live under the umbrella of various U.S. dioceses in the Order of Consecrated Hermits. Over coffee, I sit amazed to converse with a hermit in inner-city Philadelphia! (I presumed they lived as ascetic, silent recluses in remote areas.)

This cheerful man dismantles all my preconceptions—except asceticism. Obviously resourceful, Richard lives in a once-abandoned tiny rowhouse bought for $1 and restored to livability by the man himself. He works part-time to support a nearly off-the-grid lifestyle and bakes Sunday’s eucharistic bread as his parish offering. Otherwise, Richard Withers, a young 52, happily describes his as a “hidden life” in which he ponders “unseen realities.”

Father Mac, who moves amiably in and out of the kitchen responding to doors and phone, is clearly pleased to count Richard Withers among his congregants, claiming him as the “parish hermit, a singular and extraordinary blessing.”


Life in Ordinary Time

The hermit life pulled strongly at the young John McNamee. Reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain prompted him to request information from Gethsemani, the Kentucky abbey where Merton lived. He received an application. Questions about his ear for music and allusions to choir monks concerned him enough that he inquired no further. He suspects, though, that Philadelphia’s seminary was as austere as any Trappist monastery in 1952, when “geography—and a lack of imagination—prevailed,” as he says with a smile.

The teen McNamee, oldest of four and son of a coal miner, enrolled in the diocesan institution within walking distance of his family’s home. He was ordained on May 7, 1959.

St. Malachy rectory is certainly no hermitage. Rather, it seems to be a Catholic house of hospitality open to people of all faiths—or none. While the kitchen could use an extreme makeover, it does have a restaurant-size range (a gift, Father Mac explains), so out of this kitchen can come meals for many.

On a linen tablecloth in the dining room, Olga serves the noon meal on weekdays. It’s hard to predict how much to prepare, she explains, since it’s challenging to guess who might be out or who might bring guests. Anyone in the rectory at noon Monday through Friday, though, would be welcome, Olga says.

Diners often include the rectory’s current residents, who vary in age, interests and length of stay. Sister Catherine Denny, parish social minister, often joins the noonday table.

Around the City—and Its Suburbs

A veteran in the field of social ministry, Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity Sister Catherine does home nursing, brings Holy Communion to the sick and coordinates Aid for Friends, entrées home-cooked by people all over the county and frozen for delivery as needed by Sister Catherine. She also helps parishioners shop for their own groceries. “There’s no supermarket around here,” she points out. She also contacts multiple sources to stock the emergency food cupboard, organizes a Mass of Anointing, as well as holiday food and gifts for the elderly, plus a Christmas party for the parish’s children. Her phone rings often.

Between calls, Sister Catherine, now in her 21st year at St. Malachy, tries to credit others. Nearby Temple University is a big source of support, she says. She also names a large network of parishes—St. Monica, Berwin; St. Thomas, Chester Heights; St. Luke, Doylestown; St. Rose of Lima, North Wales; St. Isaac Jogues, Wayne—whose members cook and shop and underwrite the parish outreach she coordinates. Suburban connections are common at St. Malachy.

Ruth Thornton-Payne, principal of St. Malachy School, describes similar partnering and participation by people and parishes in the Philadelphia suburbs. Ruth graduated from St. Malachy herself, became a teacher’s aide there, then a teacher for 27 years before becoming principal four years ago. St. Malachy 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.”

So is its principal, whose four sons have all graduated from St. Malachy and, as is common among its graduates, have gone on to do well in high school and in life. The school opens for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and the after-school program concludes at 6:30 p.m. “Have to—to make it work for single parents,” Father Mac explains. “This school is here to serve the community.”

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

That first “adoptive” year was concluded last May with Mass, luncheon and tour for the students and 95 of the sponsors. Principal Thornton-Payne describes sponsors clutching their photo of the adopted student, delighted to match image to reality. The principal recalls one woman saying, “When I get home, I’ll put your picture back on the refrigerator—with those of my other children.”

This is the kind of one-on-one, friend-to-friend, heart-to-heart connection for which Father McNamee has a special gift—this despite his predilection for the quiet life. At Christmas and Easter, he sends a new poem of greeting to roughly 5,000 supporters. It is unlikely its recipients are complete strangers to him. “I boldly put 10 return envelopes in there,” the priest-poet says, hoping to gain more than a penny for his thoughts.

In his books, the pastor frets about his interrupted life, one of doorbells, phones, emergencies, neediness and the never-ending quest for resources to maintain the church at the intersection of 11th and Master Streets. In person, however, he is a pastor, attentive in the present. Still, he plans for a future in which the parish can continue without him. (He must draft his letter of retirement next month, since his birthday next May will be his 75th.)

He has a knack for connecting projects with those most able to execute them. “Everything’s personal, isn’t it?” he acknowledges, grateful to his network of friends and supporters. The church’s new exterior lighting was designed and donated by friends at nearby Temple University. The rectory’s well-used, high-ceilinged parlor was refurbished with sunny colors and custom shutters by a designer friend. Landscaping at the rectory’s well-used back entrance is lovingly tended by a professional gardener—at no charge.

How This Priest Became This Pastor

“I try not to live here as though life begins and ends at 11th and Master— even though it could! I am connected and related to the neighborhood. I live here. I’m one of them,” Father McNamee says during a welcome but brief lull on a Sunday afternoon.

His desire to live his priestly ministry in this involved and involving way was inspired in part by Dorothy Day. Father Mac explains that, in the seminary library, “there was little by way of newspapers. I discovered The Catholic Worker newspaper and began looking for its appearance in the reading room....Dorothy Day was already talking about the revolution in the Church in Europe—liturgical renewal, social action and French worker-priests.” Day’s passion inspired the young seminarian. “Working in the inner city, involved in the struggle of working people, was as close as one could come in the American situation to a worker-priest,” Father Mac says.

This well-read Renaissance priest speaks of past and present thinkers, authors and activists so warmly they seem like friends, which some were—and are. In our time together, we touch on the person and thought of mystic Simone Weil, Dominican Herbert McCabe, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Little Brother of Jesus founder Charles de Foucauld, Trappist Thomas Merton, Benedictine liturgist Damasus Winzen, theologian Gerard Sloyan and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. County Donegal, “my long-dead father’s place,” is a muse as well.

Cultural critic Ivan Illich, Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, the late Philip Berrigan and his activist wife, Elizabeth McAllister, the United Farm Workers co-founders Cesar Chávez and his wife, Dolores Huerta, have all been guests at St. Malachy rectory.

From the Pen of an Urban Priest

Diary of a City Priest. Sheed & Ward, 1993. 258 pp. $18.95. The film version of Diary of a City Priest is available on DVD from Heartland Film Festival Video, 200 S. Meridian St., Suite 220, Indianapolis, IN 46225-1076.

Clay Vessels and Other Poems. Woodcuts by Robert F. McGovern. Sheed & Ward, 1995. 66 pp. $18.95, hardcover.

Endurance: The Rhythm of Faith. Sheed & Ward, 1996. 212 pp. $15.95.

Donegal Suite: A Collection of Poetry. Dufour Editions, 2006. 62 pp. $13.95.

Artist and sculptor Robert F. McGovern, whose woodcuts complement McNamee’s poetry in Clay Vessels (1995), is a friend and collaborator. The walls of the rectory’s steep stairwell have become Father McNamee’s own Stations of the Way, with framed memorial cards and news clippings alongside event posters, photos and artworks.

That stairwell memorializes the past, but the pastor lives in the present. He serves as president of the Ludlow Youth Community Center. “I am as worried about the conditions in the public school and their need for an afterschool program as I am about our own school. It’s that simple.” Thus, a tutorial program for neighborhood students is now housed in the former St. Malachy convent. Typically, around 50 students are present.

He has also invited—and supported—the return of Catholic Worker houses to North Philadelphia: I visit House of Grace Catholic Worker House on East Lehigh, which sponsors a free health clinic just two blocks away.

Soul Brother

People in need are not always connected to larger projects with official names and eloquent mission statements. Some days, it’s helping Tiffany Watkins—and others at the end of their ropes—to hang on. Sometimes, it becomes Father Mac’s task to bury the dead. It was his parishioner Mary Peck who insisted that the anonymous “Boy in the Bag,” tossed into a vacant lot in Philadelphia, receive a proper funeral.

Though the anonymous boy was unclaimed and unmourned by others, Mary Peck could not forget him. Mary, who is now deceased, pestered the medical examiner until the office finally released the remains for burial. Father McNamee presided at that touching service—and at the blessing of a new marker when the boy’s real name—Jerell Willis—became known, and his murderers brought to justice.

Father Mac is sure to point out that the work of mercy was really Mary Peck’s. Similarly, he deflects attention toward some of his parishioners who were raised by St. Katharine Drexel. He calls them his “Drexel girls.” He urges, “You have to meet Beatrice Monroe, who sat on Mother Katharine’s lap.” Beatrice’s daughter Yvonne is proud of her 82-year-old mother and her personal history with a Philadelphia saint, but grabs this reporter’s notebook to jot her own pithy observations about another servant of the Church she both teases and reveres.

The younger Monroe writes quickly, “Father John McNamee, better known as Father Mac, works with dangerous and desperate folks. He is a soul brother.”


He’s a man of prayer, this pastor. The shape it takes is an hour by “my morning window” in his upstairs room, incorporating the psalms and canticles of the Divine Office. Asked about his daily journal (his two works of prose have been excerpted from this reflective discipline), Father McNamee says, “I’m more tired at the end of the day now than I was 10 years ago.”

Often Mondays find him at the Jersey shore, far enough away but close enough to reach. He and his friend Father Ed Hallinan, pastor of nearby St. Martin de Porres Parish, often escape there together. They fret together over questions of financial solvency, the future of their parishes, their people, their causes, their dilemmas. St. Malachy has the annual Irish concert and the Fighting Irish 5K Race which raise money, but still...

When May 2008 comes all too soon, will St. Malachy School have the strong financial base it needs to continue, independent of archdiocesan funding? Will the parish become one more casualty of inner-city closures? After all, St. Malachy has already absorbed the congregations of Gesu, Assumption, St. Edward and Our Lady of Mercy parishes. “Whether this work survives us or doesn’t is completely out of our hands,” says Father McNamee.

The two priests are weary but resolute. Father Mac’s beloved Simone Weil comes to mind, saying, “A test of what is real is that it is hard and rough. Joys are found in it, not pleasure. What is pleasant belongs in dreams.”

The pastors leave their unpleasant questions behind to ponder both the beauty of the sea and the many mysteries of grace at work in the drab Eastern city cores where they keep the lights of sanctuary burning.

When I leave for the commuter train at nearby Temple University, Father McNamee, whom Olga has summoned from the room where he’s predictably closeted with a visitor in need, presses two dollars into my hand. “You’ll need change for the train.”

Does he suspect he hasn’t given me enough? The City Priest has let me see the view from his window. Looking down, Father John Patrick McNamee’s clear blue eyes view a Dumpster. Now and again, his gaze may rest there. Yet his watchword is endurance. The pastor looks out at his beloved North Philadelphia from that window. He looks forward. He shares his vision of Church in prose and poetry, in word and deed, with body and soul.

Carol Ann Morrow was on the staff of St. Anthony Messenger Press for 25 years and continues to write in retirement from her new Kentucky home.


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