The livelihood of West Philadelphia’s Catholic community is not faring as well as Penn’s.
Due to low funding and attendance, six parishes in West Philadelphia will merge to become three later this month. Catholic organizations at Penn, however, manage to maintain membership by straying from a strictly worship-based community model.
Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput approved the mergers on Sunday. They began when Chaput became archbishop in 2011.
The merger won’t directly affect most Catholics at Penn. Most Penn Catholics attend mass at the non-merging St. Agatha-St. James Parish, College junior Kaitlyn Kutschera, president of Penn Newman said.
Unlike the churches in West Philadelphia, Penn Catholic organizations noticed an increase in involvement. The groups altered their activities since they serve a younger audience at Penn, which is not the usual Catholic community.
“[The Catholic community] changes when you come to a college campus,” Penn Catholic Student Association President and College junior Margaret Buff said. “Back home [it] is an elderly population — there is a different demographic here.”
In order to attract active members, the groups initiated more social and community service-centered activities.
“Students are getting more involved with things other than worship,” Programs in Religion, Interfaith and Spirituality Matters co-chair College junior Mia Garuccio said. Garuccio added that the more social aspects of religious groups cause students to be increasingly involved with religious life on campus.
PCSA, for example, partners with West Catholic High School. Every weekday, members from the organization tutor and help students with the college application process.
“There are people involved who don’t necessarily go to church all the time.… [Community service] is another way of living out your faith,” Buff said.
Penn Newman also sponsors social events that attract all types of students. The track team occasionally comes to their weekly dinners, and they expect many members of the baseball team to attend their upcoming event on religion and sports. They also hope to gain new members during the Roots Retreat happening later this month.
“[We do] more programming and different programming that appeals to all sorts of people,” Kutschera said. As a result, it’s “more of an open community as opposed to a clique.”
Numerically, there is a significant Catholic presence on campus.
Garuccio estimates that there are 50 active participants in PCSA, and 400-500 on their listserv. Similarly, Kutschera approximates 800 people — including graduate students — on Penn Newman’s general listserv, and 50 active members. Both groups claim that Catholicism is one of the biggest religious presences on campus.
With regards to the parish merger, students lament the disruption of the West Philadelphia religious centers, but concur that the merger is a necessary measure.
Kutschera commented that the proximity of the parishes to one another makes having all six unnecessary. Garrucio agreed that membership in churches declined likely because they are more worship-centered.
Yet, Penn students remain optimistic about the future of Catholicism in Philadelphia.
“People are coming together in a new parish, and hopefully that will reinvigorate that community,” Buff said.