When Bonnie Coccagna was growing up in the city’s Lawncrest neighborhood in the 1960s, the Church of St. William was the neighborhood centerpiece. The families, mostly white and working class, prayed at Mass every Sunday. Their children went to the parish school.
As those children grew up, many moved to the suburbs and the neighborhood changed. But even in the early 2000s, the neighborhood and parish were still predominantly white.
So when then-Monsignor Nelson J. Pérez, a son of Cuban immigrants, was named pastor in 2002, some of the old-timers were surprised, and not particularly thrilled.
“I think they were a little apprehensive about having a Latino pastor,” Coccagna said.
Once the pastor started delivering his sermons, he delivered even more of a shock. He spoke directly to the changing neighborhood and issues that were taboo.
Coccagna recalled him telling the congregation that going to Mass every day meant nothing if back home they criticize the neighbor who had five children with five men.
“‘Instead of talking the person down, you can go across the street and give her a hand,’” Coccagna recalled Pérez saying. “And that’s tough for people to hear. There’s a lot of older, white people, and that was a hard pill to swallow, but it was the truth.”
Many of the white residents left the neighborhood and church during that decade, replaced by black, Latino, Haitian, and Asian families and people of lower income. But those who stayed, and those who moved in, embraced Pérez, whose longest tenure in Philadelphia was at Church of St. William, from 2002 to 2009.
Pérez, 58, will be the first Latino archbishop in Philadelphia, taking over a diocese that has been bleeding parishioners for years. The St. William congregation that got to know him during his near seven-year stint there say that he is the right face for Philadelphia’s Catholics — a changing population and increasingly Hispanic.
Pérez was described as a leader who brings people together and breaks down the ethnic and racial barriers, someone engaging and caring. He learned people’s names and would visit the elderly and the sick. He showed up at a vigil for a gunshot victim who wasn’t a parishioner.
He managed to be beloved by those who stuck to more traditional Catholic teachings and those who hungered for a more progressive church.
Former parishioners say he was not afraid to ask tough questions or demand more and better of other leaders.
When Pérez was the pastor at St. William, he also served as a board member at Philadelphia Protestant Home (PPH), a nursing facility in Lawncrest. Anthony Manzo, the home’s president and CEO, recalled Pérez asking, “What are you doing to help some of the folks who are lower income?” and “How are we reaching out beyond our walls to serve the needs of the community?”
“Nelson was always someone who spoke to the diversity aspect of our community and of PPH because things had already started to change in the neighborhood," Manzo said. "There was a lot more diversity. And he kept reminding us that it wouldn’t be the same residents moving in, which has come to pass.”
Between 2000 and 2010, within the parish’s boundaries, population increased by 7 percent but changed its racial makeup. The number of white residents dropped by half to 6,002, while the number of black residents tripled to 8,272, making it the plurality as of 2010. The Hispanic population nearly doubled to 3,737.
Tom Connell, 81, was shaving Wednesday evening with the 11 p.m. news playing in the background.
“My ear picked up on the TV that there was a rumor that the monsignor was coming and I just thought, ‘Well, thank you, God!’” recalled the St. William parishioner for 58 years. “I wasn’t against any of the other leadership we had but I just think he’s younger, he’s going to have the energy.”
Connell, a retired sales manager who has served as a Eucharistic minister at St. William for years, is thankful that the Latino Catholic community has found a home there. It has essentially saved his church.
“It has really worked out well because our church here is thriving and like all the churches we could grow a little more, be a little stronger,” he said.
Ed Emery, an octogenarian who leads the ushers, recalls Pérez running the parish “very thoroughly” and “economically.”
According to the parish bulletins from 2008, the Sunday collections would bring in $9,000 to $12,000.
Pérez would also raise funds for the church through murder-mystery parties and other events. He once showed up to a Halloween party in a flannel shirt and said he was dressed up as a lay person. The monsignor liked to socialize with his parishioners and enjoyed a good party. At the annual Christmas festivities, Pérez would play the guitar. The one song he dreaded playing? “Feliz Navidad.”
He also ventured out of the neighborhood and was known to have dinner at parishioners’ homes.
“A friend of mine in the next parish said, ‘Oh, yeah, my mom has him down for dinner because he likes her cooking,’ because apparently he liked the spicy foods and whoever cooked at the rectory did not cook spicy foods for him,” said Kathy Wersinger, a longtime parishioner and executive assistant at Protestant Home.
When Pérez left St. William to be the pastor at St. Agnes in West Chester, his St. William parishioners recalled being devastated. In his final bulletin letter, Pérez thanked everyone and said they had achieved his goal of seeing the parish continue to be vibrant:
“My heart is filled with many different emotions, but the most powerful of all of them is that of gratitude. St. William helped me grow as a priest and taught me how to be a pastor.”
When Pérez returned to St. William a year ago to mark its 100th anniversary, new staffers such as Sister Rose Patrice felt drawn to his charisma.
“He’s so welcoming. He has the spirit of the people,” Sister Rose said. “He talked about the neighborhood and the goodness of the people here.”
For the centennial, Sister Rose interviewed Pérez for a video, and asked for his favorite parish memory.
“Obviously the people, the people and their openness with each other, and their hospitality to each other, and their tolerance," he said. "You know, the cultural acceptance. And my second-best memory is the adoration chapel. It was awesome.”
The adoration chapel was started by Pérez’s predecessor at St. William. It is a small chapel in the back of the church where people can go in to pray at any hour of the day or night.
As she made her way to Mass at St. William on Thursday, Sister Elisa Lopez couldn’t contain her excitement about Pérez being named the new archbishop.
“Yes, we know it, Mama, we are so happy!” the Puerto Rican native said in Spanish, adding that she’s known Pérez for decades. “It’s such a joy. We know we are blessed.”
Lopez, 84, said Pérez is very kind but strong, a leader who she believes will be visible and available to the region’s 1.3 million Catholics.
There’s much work to be done, she said.
“We have to pray a lot for the crime, for the lack of faith. There’s a lot of lack of faith,” she said, adding that she hopes Pérez will lead some large marches against abortion that other cities have seen.
Catherine Coccagna, 31, is looking for him to lead the church in a more progressive direction.
She was in high school when Pérez arrived at the parish and said it was “a treat” to hear him deliver a sermon. She trusted him, she said, at a time when she wasn’t very trusting of the church, given the sex-abuse scandals of the day.
Even as she moved away for college and stopped going to Mass, she still thought fondly of him.
“He really brought a sense of community," she said. "We have and had a very large Hispanic population and he really integrated them into the old Irish-Italian Catholic community that has been there and made them aware that ‘yes, we can be one.’ ”
When he left the parish, she cried.
The younger Coccagna did not marry her husband through the Catholic Church, hasn’t baptized her daughter, and hasn’t attended Mass in years. But as she heard the news of Pérez’s return, she was thrilled.