Pope Francis’ call to the poor leads to a new ministry in Kensington

The Rev. William Murphy (left) and the Rev. Joseph Devlin give communion during noon Mass at Mother of Mercy House, formerly a bar. (CLEM MURRAY/Staff Photographer)

THE TWO MARIAS come first, mother and daughter, devout Catholics who used to go to nearby Ascension of our Lord Parish before it closed a few years back.

And then comes Harold Pantoja, who is counting on prayer until he can see a doctor about his kidney stones. He used to go to Ascension, too, before it was shuttered in 2012, but now the closest churches, Holy Innocents and Visitation BVM, are too far for him to walk. So he was thrilled when he saw the sign for Mother of Mercy House - in the former McGee's bar, of all places.

Starting at 5 a.m., I spent a few hours in Kensington today with Father Murphy as he offered prayers and Pop-Tarts to homeless, hungry and drug addicted. He and another priest have started an outreach ministry in an old bar nearby.

A video posted by notesfromhel (@notesfromhel) on Aug 22, 2015 at 4:58am PDT

About noon on a recent weekday, a small flock trickles into the old bar at 801-03 E. Allegheny Ave., where the Rev. William Murphy, in stiff, white Mass vestments, stands near the big wooden bar where neighborhood regulars once ordered no-fuss drinks.

Today's Mass is similarly casual - some donated chairs, a card table draped in a white tablecloth with a Bible on top. Boxed wine for the sacrament and a come-as-you-are, open-door policy in a neighborhood where people tend to keep their doors shut tight against drugs and crime and poverty that push life closer to the edge.

But the edge is where Pope Francis has told the church it must go if it is to survive. During a convocation of priests in 2012, Archbishop Charles Chaput challenged them to find ways to be among the poor and vulnerable where churches could no longer be sustained.

Immediately, Father Murphy was interested. The Rev. Joseph Devlin, too. Both had comfortable assignments at other churches, Murphy as pastor of Assumption BVM Parish in West Grove, Chester County, and Devlin as pastor of St. Bridget Parish in East Falls. But the call back to basics tugged at them, and it tugged at Sister Ann Raymond Welte, who was given permission by superiors of her community, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to join the priests in their project.

They originally thought they'd use a nearby convent, but when it wasn't available, they looked for another space. And when Devlin told Chaput they found it in an old taproom in Kensington, he gave them his blessing - once they explained what a "taproom" was. Three months after they moved into the space in June, Mother of Mercy House still looks more speakeasy than sanctuary - though the bar has since been removed, and once it's fully renovated and an official chapel is installed, it will be blessed for simple Masses and pastoral work.

"I loved being a parish priest," said Murphy, who lives in one of the apartments above the bar-turned-ministry. Devlin lives in the other. "I've been a parish priest for 25 years and it's been wonderful, but I thought this would be something new, something creative. It would be a way of maybe not having to worry so much about buildings and structures and more about just getting right out into the neighborhood, right to the people."

Here there are building issues, too, but mostly of the broken-sewer-pipe kind. And on the day that I visit, there's a musty odor that could be garbage that needs to be taken out - but it's probably just the airing out of a long-shuttered building that has since found new life in a neighborhood that's a blur of movement and noise and endless hustles. At times, the noise from the street - people yelling, horns honking, sirens blaring, the rattling of the El train - drowns out the services. But Murphy, a boyish and lighthearted 51, continues, undeterred.

Later, he will sit outside in his clerical collar, next to the guy selling a used Bill Russell No. 6 Celtics jersey and a fur coat for $15, and people walking by will look a little startled to see a priest just sitting there. They will stop and ask him what he's doing there, and if he's a real priest. Then they will ask if he can pray for them or their children or the neighborhood they live in, by choice or circumstance.

Murphy and Devlin and Sister Ann have taken to walking around their new neighborhood to get to know their surroundings, but also to determine its needs and how they can truly be of service.

Another nun advised them not to come into the neighborhood assuming they knew what was needed - not to impose as much as include. For now, they have Mass twice a week - soon four times a week - where they've gotten upward of 15 people of all denominations. And they're slowly making renovations to the space with the help of volunteers, donations and, soon, money from the Francis Fund. The fund was established by the Hunger and Homelessness Committee led by Sister Mary Scullion in tandem with the World Meeting of Families and the pope's visit.

On Saturdays, Murphy goes out with a ragtag group of believers at 5 a.m. to offer Pop-Tarts and prayer to the addicted, homeless and hungry. As much as possible, their doors remain open.

"Is it over?" a young man with red hair asks a few moments after Mass on this day is, in fact, over.

Murphy and Sister Ann have gotten to know this man a little. They invite him in to take a seat; Murphy offers him a fruit cup and listens to him talk about his life before and after, a story that in their short time here they've heard repeatedly. Before: a wife, kids, a job and three cars. "One was brand new," he said. After: heroin.

"Sometimes I get mad at God," he said. "Sometimes I think it's all bogus. My mother was a devout Catholic who struggled for everything, even death when she got really sick.

"I ask God for simple things," the man said. "I don't ask for a million dollars or to be Superman. I ask for a little bit of faith or strength to get over this hurdle. And I understand that it's on you, but I don't do anything to hurt nobody . . . except myself."

When I asked him his name, he laughed and said, "Put me down as Joe Anonymous."

Murphy, standing nearby, said: "Hey, Joe Anonymous, listen, you know, I have a list of places. Would you be willing to go to one to get help?"

The El train roars overhead.

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