St. Malachy’s thrives despite all odds

St. Malachy’s, a heralded and historical elementary school situated in the impoverished belly of North Philadelphia’s inner city, has seen to the educational and spiritual needs of children for 154 years. The school — and the parish church, founded 10 years earlier in 1852, known then as “the church in the woods” — continues to serve a diverse community, and 77 percent of St. Malachy’s students come from low-income families and more than 40 percent fall below the poverty level. Some 60 percent receive financial aid.

As such, it hasn’t been easy for St. Malachy’s to keep going all these years.

But thanks to generous support from the community, the school and church remain a viable entity in so many lives in the neighborhood. Its viability seems to be growing stronger as well, particularly in continuing its commitment both academically and spiritually to serving underprivileged children.

The school recently received a $1 million grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership, a consortium of Catholic business leaders, which proposes and promises to support and expand high quality, financially in-need Catholic schools, like St. Malachy’s.

Expanded facilities

In 2014, the parish, with enormous financial help from affluent supporters and surrogates — angels of the parish — purchased a larger educational facility from the School District of Philadelphia. Donors hailed from Philadelphia’s Main Line, a region of the suburbs that lies along the route of the former Pennsylvania Railroad, as well as from New Jersey. The new facility opened in September 2016 and is located just one block away from the old building.

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With the $1 million grant, the new and larger St. Malachy School, equipped with playing fields and green grass, will be able to offer an expanded curriculum adapted for modern technology and learning in the 21st century.

It will also be able to serve many more students.

The school ended the 2015-16 academic year with 180 students in its previous, cramped building, but now has 265 enrolled in the new facility. The grant enabled the school to add two prekindergarten classes, one kindergarten class and another first-grade class.

The goal for the next five years is to double the number of students served by St. Malachy’s to more than 500.

The outlook for St. Malachy’s future wasn’t always this sanguine.

A pastor on a mission

In the 1980s, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia contemplated closing the parish and school.

But Father John McNamee, the longtime heart of parish life at St. Malachy, relentlessly fought to keep the school and church going at a time when the archdiocese was closing many of its inner-city schools.

Father McNamee

Now retired, the 83-year-old priest, the pastor of St. Malachy from 1982-2006, fought for its survival by ministering to the kids of the tough inner-city streets of North Philadelphia, where crime, gangs, drugs and despair drained many lives. Father McNamee did what his ministry demanded of him: He railed against poverty, bigotry and soullessness. He saved so many underprivileged children from those streets by serving and shepherding them in St. Malachy School.

Soft-spoken, with his snow-white hair juxtaposed against a ruddy-deep complexion, Father McNamee simply recalled: “There was work to do. It was a matter of personalism. I wanted to walk with them, search with them and be with them.”

And he got a little help from his friends.

The charismatic Father McNamee was able to galvanize his wealth of affluent and talented connections to support the church and the school financially, artistically and with the needed labor to continually repair the school and church buildings. “We tend to think of the church as a building,” he said, “but really, it’s the people who are the church.”

As one of his angels from the Main Line, Virginia Rattigan, said about Father McNamee, “He could bring alive any confronting issue and give it light in the context of the teachings of the Church. He has a terrific talent for bringing people together and getting them to understand the true ecumenical spirit of the Catholic tradition.”

Whereas most people only dream of giving hope and help to the poor, Father McNamee actually provided it. “I am poor myself,” he said. “I’m going to keep on doing what I have been doing. Retirement is a middle-class concept.”

For the world to see

Father McNamee will remain a driving force behind the new school, continuing as pastor emeritus. In fact, to seal his legacy, the 378-seat school auditorium will be named after him.

An influential figure in Philadelphia Catholic circles, and a nationally published poet and the inspiration for a feature film, “Diary of a City Priest,” starring actor David Morse, Father McNamee tirelessly campaigned over the years for the school’s children to get more involved in the arts — literature, dance and music — in order to experience the larger and brighter world.

His wish was recently manifested.

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Two fifth-grade students at St. Malachy painted portions of a 4,239-square-foot mural, “The Sacred Now: Faith and Family in the 21st Century,” which covers the new school’s façade. The mural commemorates the World Meeting of Families and the September 2015 visit to Philadelphia by Pope Francis. The mural pictures an extended family, including grandparents, parents with a baby, and children in conversation with Pope Francis. The mural is intended to deepen spirituality on a public venue. And it was signed by Pope Francis.

In a world desperately in need of role models for children, Father McNamee and St. Malachy’s school are beacons of hope and opportunity, where children can overcome the difficulties of poverty and work to better their lives academically and spiritually.

B.G. Kelley writes from Pennsylvania.