Philly became the envy of the nation when it earned the first announced U.S. visit of Pope Francis, the first Latino Pope, who is set to attend the 2015 World Meeting of Families.
But just blocks aways from the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul where Francis is expected to hold a papal mass on Sept. 27, construction supplies are scattered around the La Milagrosa church at 19th and Spring Garden, the oldest Latino Catholic church in Philadelphia, now closed.
Former parishioners won’t be celebrating Easter there. They haven’t been allowed inside since June 2013.
“This year when the pope is coming — it’s our only chance to go out and say, ‘Please help us,’” said Miguel Ortiz, a longtime La Milagrosa member and former parish council member.
“This is not the way it has to be.”
La Milagrosa, since 1912, was the oldest Catholic church in Philadelphia that provided services in Spanish. It is now slated to be turned into condominiums.
La Milagrosa was owned by the Vincentian Fathers, a Catholic society, which announced that it could no longer afford to operate the church in 1978.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia took over, providing Spanish speaking priests and paying to maintain the building.
But in 2012, the Vincentians decided to sell La Milagrosa.
“The Archdiocese never owned the building and could not prevent its sale,” said Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin in a statement. “It could not afford to purchase the building due to its well-known financial challenges.”
In response to La Milagrosa’s closing, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began offering mass in Spanish every Sunday at the Cathedral Basilica SS Peter and Paul, just five blocks away. Overall, 33 parishes in the Archdiocese provide Spanish masses.
But for those with a deep connection to La Milagrosa, the loss of their church is still keenly felt.
In recent weeks, a former parishioner in her 70s who lived across the street from La Milagrosa passed away, Ortiz said. Everyone at services was a former member of the church they can no longer enter, he said.
“A church is more than four walls,” Ortiz said. “I’m hearing from some people that they just don’t attend mass anymore … We are the abandoned of the church.”
Ortiz came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1990s and found a community at La Milagrosa, where he became a member for more than 10 years before it closed in 2013.
After getting married, he and his wife raised their two daughters at the church, which is near their home.
Now, they bounce from church to church and parish to parish every Sunday, looking for a new place where they can worship. But nothing can replace La Milagrosa, they say.
“This was our home,” said Ortiz’ 10-year-old daughter, Celeste. “I got my communion here, so did my sister. We miss all the people who used to come here. We would say hello to each other. We were united.”