I identify myself as a “lifer” from St. William parish in the Lawndale/Lawncrest community. For over 62 years, St. William parish has been my home — from attending St. William School as a student, to coming home to attend Mass as an adult, and the icing on the cake: teaching there for over 20 years until its 2012 closure.
During my youth in Lawncrest and neighboring Lawndale, most residents were white, blue-collar civil servants. Households were typically ones in which dad worked and mom stayed home. Children went to their neighborhood school, and you were identified as being a “Catholic” or “public.”
As the years marched on, Lawncrest and St. William changed. For 22 years, St. William’s pastor, Msgr. James E. Mortimer, embraced the changing demographics, calling the church “a welcoming community,” and establishing an after-school program, a day-care center, and a learning disabilities program. He helped the parishioners welcome priests from the Indian and Pakistani communities, as well as members and clergy from the Hispanic community.
In 2002, a new pastor, Nelson J. Pérez, arrived, just as the community was undergoing even more change.
In the seven years he oversaw St. William, more blended families moved into Lawncrest and Lawndale, as well as a wide diversity when it came to cultures and languages.
Then-Msgr. Pérez did everything he could to welcome these new community members.
When you were in Pérez’s presence, you sensed he did not see a nationality, a race, a creed, or a religion: He simply saw you as a person.
He really excelled at not just hearing you but listening to you. I recall going to face-to-face confession after a particularly trying week of teaching. I felt I was not getting through to some students, parents and I were locking horns, and I was beyond frustrated. I sat down in anger with tears streaming down my face. He listened as I vented and fumed. He then gently, but firmly, reeled me back in for a reality check. He told me to take a deep breath, acknowledge to myself I am human, and move forward.
His homilies were never “preachy,” but rather an opportunity that allowed you to ponder, reflect, and, if need be, question.
He also was not afraid to be hands-on. I recall working with my fifth-grade students on service projects ahead of their confirmation. We would hold pancake breakfasts. I was always worried about the students pouring hot coffee, so whenever Pérez would come in to support us, I’d hand him a coffee pot and ask him to help out, which he did gladly.
When working with Pérez on numerous committees, I always remembered his closing remarks at meetings. He would remind us that he would eventually move on; that we, the people of St. William, would need to move forward and implement changes. He told us over and over that St. William was our parish, not his. This humble man never made anything about himself. It was always about those he tended.
Now that Msgr. Pérez has become Archbishop Pérez and has been appointed to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I am looking forward to welcoming him back. I believe that this is a new era in our archdiocese. Undeniably, we, as a faith community, face issues in need of repair and healing — whether it be low Mass attendance, closures or consolidations of beloved schools and parishes, or the continued pain felt with the clergy abuse scandal.
In my opinion, Pope Francis had the keen insight to assign the right man to shepherd the people of our archdiocese. He comes not as a miracle worker, but as a dynamic, supportive, faith-filled, and faithful servant who will continue to do what he already does extraordinarily well. He will guide, he will be a hands-on presence, and most importantly, he will listen.