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Members of Saint Thomas Aquinas Church turn to their immigrant roots to raise $40K for new heater

Parishioners embraced their backgrounds, selling traditional comfort foods like Indonesian satay or Mexican tamales to raise nearly $40,000 in just over a month.

Churchgoer Nanik Oei prays during a service at the St. Thomas Aquinas Church in South Philly
Churchgoer Nanik Oei prays during a service at the St. Thomas Aquinas Church in South PhillyRead moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

When the doorbell rang at Nanik Oei’s home at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, she grabbed her coat and rushed downstairs. Waiting for her outside, like an early Christmas gift, were 400 pounds of chicken and beef.

Exactly what she wanted.

Oei, 49, hauled the meat inside her New Castle, Del., home and began the day-long process of slicing chunks, marinating beef, seasoning chicken, and skewering them onto sticks. She was preparing satay, a traditional Indonesian dish, to sell at church the next day.

St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Community in South Philadelphia was in desperate need of $40,000 to buy a new heating system. The boiler, which had kept parishioners warm for nearly 20 years, sputtered its last breath in November, just as winter’s chill began to grip the city.

Since then, the church has been warmed by two diesel-fueled machines that pump hot air in through ducts fed into the windows. But with vaulted ceilings and a vast interior that can seat 800, it’s a balky process. Congregants often bundle up in overcoats, mittens, and hats to sit through services in a 50- or 60-degree cathedral. They’re encouraged to bring blankets that can later be donated to the homeless.

The diesel in the machines lasts only 13 hours at a time, forcing church leaders to rearrange the times of six services each weekend to fit in between fuel deliveries.

Yet the cold hasn’t dampened attendance. The church holds services in English, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Spanish — a treasure for many immigrants. For the past 24 years, Oei has driven 45 minutes every Sunday for “the privilege of a Mass in my own language.”

When she heard the church couldn’t afford a new boiler, Oei stepped in, calling on her childhood comfort food for inspiration. The fund-raiser was built on her past, for the community that in the present she calls her family.

Other parishioners undertook similar endeavors.

Mexican members sold homemade tamales in the parking lot. English-speaking members held a bake sale and plan a spaghetti dinner for January. Vietnamese members collected donations from family and friends.

Many congregants work modest-paying jobs in construction, restaurants, and nail salons, Msgr. Hugh J. Shields said. Often, they’re donating their tips from the day.

“A lot of this has been sacrifices that are below the radar,” Shields said. “Not big amounts of money but really generous spirits.” Growing up, Oei saw street vendors in Indonesia prepare satay daily. But it wasn’t until she arrived in the United States in 1987 that she learned to make it herself.

On the first Saturday this December, she put those skills in action, cutting pound after pound of meat until her arms were sore. Other parishioners from the church’s Indonesian community stopped by in shifts to help her prepare 3,200 sticks.

“It’s amazing how people wanted to be part of this,” Oei said.

The next morning, as rain fell, parishioners gathered to grill the skewers in a tent outside the church. Oei had it down to a science: One person could grill 160 skewers per hour. With six grills, that meant nearly 1,000 skewers each hour — just enough time to have one batch ready after each of the three Sunday masses. The wafting aroma brought nearby residents to the tent, too.

In two weekends, the group raised $13,000.

Along with the other parishioners' fund-raising efforts over the last month, the church has nearly met its fund-raising goal — $34,000 for a new boiler and $6,000 for the temporary heating system they’ve been renting. (The rent is borrowed from church funds meant to buy such items as new prayer books.)

“The initial shock of the amount we needed was overwhelming,” said Barbara Inforzato, a South Philly resident who has been attending the church for 70 years. “But the generosity of the people here is not a surprise.”

Originally home to an Irish and Italian community, St. Thomas Aquinas church has welcomed large Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Mexican communities over the years. A balcony at the back of the church holds a rainbow of flags representing 15 different home nations of congregants. Parishioners are offered English classes and free legal services.

“It’s a place that gives people hope,” Shields said.

The church is even associated with one of the city’s most famous underdogs: Rocky Balboa. St. Thomas Aquinas is the site Rocky visits for a blessing before his rematch against Apollo Creed.

Parishioners carry that same fighting spirit, Shields said. “We’re a poor parish. We’re not supposed to be able to do this.”

Yet because of the fund-raising efforts, the church is set to receive a new boiler next month. As Shields put it, “It’s the power of people putting faith into action.”