A Church on the Upswing

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While some local Catholic churches see dwindling attendance, St. Francis de Sales is growing


  • Father Philip Kelly at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church on East 96th Street, which has seen its parish population grow and attract young professionals and families. Photo by Megan Bungeroth

The Catholic archdiocese of New York has recently made some tough decisions about consolidating churches throughout the five boroughs, due to lack of resources, declining Mass attendance and difficulty maintaining older facilities. But despite the desolate picture presented to some parishes, St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church on E. 96th St. is thriving and growing, bringing in younger parishioners and catering to the changing populations of Yorkville and East Harlem.

Pastor Philip Kelly speaks about his congregation with a touch of awe for their enthusiasm and willingness to get involved in the parish community, and he credits them with helping to grow the parish from a few hundred weekly Mass attendees to about 600 today.

Fr. Kelly came to St. Francis three years ago, after spending 14 years at St. Joseph of the Holy Family in Harlem. At the time, he said, it was “a parish with great potential that was not living up to that potential. It needed to be challenged.”

He and his staff, including pastoral associate Jayne Porcelli, who had previously worked at St. Stephen of Hungary on the Upper East Side, began working to create programs and community building efforts, trying to reach out to the young single population that has been increasing in the neighborhood.

“Our demographic is amazingly young and diverse,” Fr. Kelly said. “I’d say the average age is 28-30 years old. On Sundays you have to dodge the baby strollers [in the church aisles] – and the scooters.”

One of the programs at St. Francis that Porcelli and Fr. Kelly credit with helping to keep the congregation young and vibrant is their LGBTQS Catholic Alliance – a gay-straight alliance group that bills itself as “an inclusive and welcoming fellowship.”

“I had a very positive experience with my faith and coming out when I was younger,” said Jay Malsky, who is 29 and the coordinator for the group. “When I moved to 102nd and Lexington, [I came to St. Francis], and the message is so clear and welcoming.”

He said that he wants to help other gay and lesbian Catholics experience the same positive feelings of support and community that he acknowledges they may not have gotten elsewhere. Asked if it truly is an alliance – do straight people join, too? – Malsky laughed. “Last night, we were outnumbered,” he said. Many parishioners join because they have gay family members, or just want to be part of a social group that also shares Scripture readings during their wine and cheese nights.

Other groups have formed around the Filipino and Asian American parishioners, though the groups are open to all and encourage anyone to join. Another group of younger people has started organizing health and fitness events for the community. Many parishioners work for nearby Mt. Sinai hospital, Fr. Kelly said.

Monsignor Neil Connolly, the associate pastor at St. Francis, comes to the parish after many years working in Harlem and the Lower East Side with low-income communities fighting for social justice causes and better gun control. He is hoping to make St. Francis an official “Peace Parish,” as part of Pax Christi, the Catholic peace movement.

“Politicians advocate taking up arms; we’re trying to make people conscious that maybe there are other solutions,” Msgr. Connolly said. “We’re committed to creating peaceful solutions.”

He mentions the work of Pope Francis in promoting peace and equality as a model, and a reason that young Catholics may be more interested in working closely with the Church.

“The Pope is really giving the Church some good press,” said Porcelli. “He’s putting a welcoming face on the Church,” which is what they are trying to emulate with the outreach at St. Francis.

Staff at the church do their best to reach younger people and families through social media too, with parishioners pitching in with graphic design and marketing skills.

“We are convinced that St. Paul would be using the internet to propagate his letters,” said Fr. Kelly.

They also work with local organizations like Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service, on East 115th Street, and the Industrial Areas Foundation, which connects faith groups with community leaders to work for social change (President Obama worked with IAF in his community organizing days), as well as Search and Care, an organization that helps seniors stay in their homes by providing services for them.

“We’re geographically on the border of two different worlds,” Msgr. Connelly said, meaning that the church gets people from El Barrio and East Harlem as well as from Yorkville and Carnegie Hill, a point of pride for the congregation. “One woman told us she liked that she could come to Mass and [find her] doorman sitting right next to [her].”

Fr. Kelly emphasizes that “the people are the ones that are leading,” speaking about one parishioner who decided to start holding budgeting seminars for new New Yorkers who could use some assistance in day-to-day financial planning in an expensive city, and another who found a job through a connection made at a toddler and parent playgroup at the church.

“Things here are definitely on an upswing,” Porcelli said, citing the commitment of their young professional church-goers. “It’s great to walk into church and have to search to find a gray-haired head.”

Visit the church’s website www.sfdsnyc.org or find them on Facebook: St. Francis de Sales Parish.

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