Saint Rita of Cascia Church celebrated a milestone in 2007, its 100th anniversary. From its inception, Saint Rita’s has served as a spiritual, education, social and cultural center within the South Philadelphia community. Through its parish school, devotions and social activities, Saint Rita’s became recognized quickly throughout Philadelphia.
Over the years the parish served many communities. First came the immigrant families making a life in a new country, reliant on their centuries-old faith. As they became part of the American fabric, the church shifted its concern to the ever changing neighborhood and the city. There have been, of course, trials and challenges. By the early 1990’s it seemed as if this remarkable community center might close. However, a faith-based initiative to revitalize Saint Rita’s began and soon gained wide support.
The mission to revitalize this place of reconciliation and peacemaking began in 1993 as the result of a newsletter mailing to just 600 people. At the end of the 20th century, the Bishops of the United States designated us to be the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia and in the year 2000 we were incorporated as a non-profit, civil corporation in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Along with purposeful efforts to increase communication through those years, a large scale project began that included the refurbishing of the upper church, a complete renovation and remodeling of the lower shrine and an installation of an elevator to reach both areas above and below ground level. Today in 2007, our quarterly newsletter reaches over 16,000 households nationwide and the recent work to enhance the beauty of our church and shrine is clearly evident to visiting pilgrims and local devotees who frequent St. Rita’s.
Established in 1907 by Archbishop Patrick Ryan through a generous gift of Mr. Lucas Burke, the parish was entrusted to the Augustinian Friars under whose pastoral care it has remained to this day. Tens of thousands over the years have come to call Saint Rita’s their spiritual home, a unique place of spirituality and ministry. The soul of the church and its many accomplishments are embodied in the life of its patroness, the 15th Century wife, mother, widow and nun, renowned as a peacemaker, advocate of reconciliation, and aid in difficulty.
Over the course of nearly ten full decades of life tens of thousands of individuals have come to call Saint Rita’s their spiritual home. The generous donation of one individual, Mr. Lucas Burke, the eagerness of the then Archbishop, Patrick Ryan, and the leadership of the Augustinian Friars, came together in 1907 to provide a setting in which the spiritual, social and educational needs of the poor, Italian, new immigrant families could be addressed. These immigrants came not only to receive, however. They had much to offer as well. Their creativity, talent, patience and industry built a monumental church whose beauty and spirit continue to encourage, inspire and enthrall believers and non-believers alike down to our day. Much of the spirit that has defined the community and its church is centered around the person of Saint Rita herself, the 15th Century wife, mother, widow and nun who is renowned as Peacemaker, Advocate of Reconciliation and Helper in the most difficult of situations. Untold numbers of men and women from outside the community have also been drawn by the message and example of this wonder-worker saint over the course of the years to visit her church, invoke her aid, and sing her praises. Thus, the patrons of Saint Rita are distributed far and wide.
As was the case in many churches serving immigrant communities in the early 20th Century, Saint Rita of Cascia responded energetically to the needs of its members in whatever way it could. A parish school was established to educate the young; classes were held to teach English to adults and to help mothers in rearing their children; clubs were formed for social, religious, and cultural purposes; a center was founded to provide recreational opportunities for young and old alike; several religious congregations of Sisters established local communities in its neighborhoods for social outreach and educational services. Saint Rita Parish became a vibrant, creative and caring community and, in being so, established bonds with families who have never forgotten the significant role the church played in their lives.
The years passed, families grew and needs changed. The children and grandchildren of many who came in search of opportunity in America have realized their goals and have moved on to other places to live out their own dreams. Over recent decades Saint Rita had also begun to change. It was no longer the vibrant and vital center of the community’s life that it had formerly been. Rumors ran in the early 1990’s that perhaps Saint Rita had served its purpose and was no longer needed, or worse, no longer able to survive.
In 1992, friars set out to see if the spirit now housed in an aging and frail building could be revived. They met with the enthusiastic and expectant response of many people who had been waiting and hoping for this moment. Representative of the great faith characterizing Saint Rita’s and her supporters, the beautiful upper church was refurbished, breathing new life in to this spiritual oasis. A similar transformation was begun for the lower church in 1997. Today in 2007, the envisioned make-over has been designated a National Shrine to Saint Rita. These renovations have renewed hope and confidence not only in the parish, but in devotion to Saint Rita, celebrated by hundreds of pilgrims who come each month to pray and seek the gifts of the Lord through her intercession.
The parish community by now was very small and was composed of mostly older individuals. The neighborhood had seen better, more prosperous days. Social activities were few. The one special event which had continued uninterrupted since 1907, albeit in modified form, and which still brought people back to Saint Rita’s, was the Solemn Feast of the Saint herself and the attendant Novena in the month of May. Little by little word began to spread that the friars were serious about revitalizing Saint Rita’s. A newsletter was launched and mailed to 600 addresses culled from various lists, the church was kept unlocked for much of the day and services were added. Eventually the upper church began to undergo restoration and repainting, the single greatest sign that there was hope for Saint Rita’s.
The year 2000, a Year of Jubilee for Christianity and the 100th anniversary of Saint Rita’s canonization, became the target for a major renovation of the lower church and its transformation into a devotional shrine area. Financial support for the project arrived from throughout the country, from thousands of former parishioners and devotees of Saint Rita. The first phase of renovation was completed and blessed on May 24, 2000. Just eight years had passed since the initiatives of 1992 had begun and already over one million dollars had been raised to rebuild Saint Rita Shrine. Even more encouraging, however, was the rebuilding of interest and enthusiasm for Saint Rita’s as a place of prayer, devotion and pilgrimage. Busloads of visitors began to visit the shrine, the newsletter’s circulation grew to over 10,000, and services were able to expand further.
Since the year 2000, several additional phases of the renovation
project have been completed, popular support has increased and two important forms of official recognition have been awarded Saint Rita’s. In February, 2003, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua formally designated Saint Rita a Shrine of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and in September of the same year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared Saint Rita’s a National Shrine “in consideration of (its) outstanding ministry…and its effective service to the spiritual, liturgical and devotional life of pilgrims from across the United States…”
Saint Rita’s is once again alive. New immigrants have joined longstanding parishioners to make Saint Rita’s their spiritual home. There is a renewed sense of diversity and vitality, and there are new needs to be met. In discerning these needs and building upon what has already been realized, especially in the last decade, we look for the same spirit of generosity, enthusiasm and creativity that characterized our early history in order that we might meet the challenges of today most effectively.