Hundreds in Norristown pray for victims of Hurricane Maria and the earthquake in Mexico

Jose Gomez prays before a special Mass for earthquake and hurricane victims Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, at St. Patrick's Church in Norristown. Gomez has relatives who live outside Mexico City, and they have been reported safe.

Amayrani Higueldo saw a photo on Snapchat of the devastation that resulted when a 7.1-magnitude earthquake shook central Mexico on Tuesday afternoon and quickly checked the news. The 19-year-old Norristown resident said she didn’t know where in Mexico the quake had struck, and needed to find out.

She has a lot of ties to Mexico. She lived in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco until she was 7; she has relatives in Veracruz, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico; and some of her friends were supposed to be at the Mexico City airport for a flight back to the United States about the time the earthquake hit.

Higueldo soon learned that her relatives’ homes were damaged but that everyone she knew there was physically fine.

So she went Thursday night to St. Patrick Church in Norristown for a special Mass to pray and raise money for relatives and friends in disaster-stricken areas of Mexico and Puerto Rico, which was ravaged when Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm, made landfall the day after the Mexican earthquake and knocked out all the power.

“They didn’t just come for their own friends and relatives,” said the Rev. Augustus C. Puleo of St. Patrick’s. “They came for others.”

About 70 percent of the church’s parishioners are from Mexico, many from Puebla, which was near the epicenter of Tuesday’s quake, Puleo said. About 10 percent to 20 percent of his parishioners are from Puerto Rico.

Puleo decided to hold the weeknight Mass at the last minute. He got the word out Wednesday, using social media and making phone calls to parishioners.

Even with all that effort, he said, he didn’t anticipate the church on DeKalb Street to be as full as it was: It can  hold more than 1,000 people, and was more than three-quarters full.

Not all parishioners spoke English, but several who did said their loved ones were OK. But they came, they said, to pray for their hometowns and for those there who are far worse off.

Angelo Evangelista, 10, came to the Mass with his father, Benjamin. Angelo said his 21-year-old brother attends college at the University of Puebla.

The boy said that when the family members learned about the earthquake, they began worrying about his brother, especially after his father couldn’t reach him right away. They later found out that his brother was not harmed.

The quake hit central Mexico on the anniversary of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which registered at 8.0 magnitude and devastated the metropolis. Some of his parishioners, Puleo said, were in Mexico during that earthquake, so this natural disaster brought back traumatic memories.

St. Patrick has Masses in Spanish and English. Puleo said the parish used to be primarily Irish, but around 2000, Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants started populating the area in large numbers, changing the makeup of the parish.

Nowadays, Puleo said, he says more Masses in Spanish than in English.

Thursday’s Mass was in Spanish and featured up-tempo music and clapping from the congregation. In his homily, Puleo told parishioners that God would walk beside them and defend them even in tragic times.

Christian Alcaraz, 26, who plays bass guitar in the chorus, said he got nervous upon seeing the church so full. He knows a lot of parishioners have at least one job, often two, and was shocked to see how many came out.

Since moving here several years ago from Mexico, he said, he has leaned on the large immigrant community in Norristown.

Higueldo said she has, too.

“This church is a place where we all support each other,” Higueldo said, “even when times are tough.”