TWENTY YEARS AGO, South Philadelphia's Saint Rita of Cascia Church was floundering. The church, which opened in 1907, had seen its neighborhood change and its congregation shrink. Its closing seemed imminent.
Then church leaders undertook revitalization efforts that renewed focus on St. Rita, renowned as "The Peacemaker" for her efforts to bring peace to feuding families in her 15th century Italian village.
The parish newsletter expanded its reach from 600 to 16,000 households, and pilgrims from across the country came to the South Broad Street church to honor their saint.
In 2003, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared St. Rita's a national shrine - the only one in the country devoted to the saint.
And again, St. Rita's is thriving.
Where we worship: The church is at 1166 S. Broad St. Its most popular Masses are 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 and 11 a.m. Sunday. If you visit, consider SEPTA: The church is between Ellsworth and Federal streets.
Dress is "casual, but respectful," said the Rev. Joseph "Father Joe" Genito, the church's rector.
What we believe: "In the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the power of community. In witnessing Christian values like love, compassion and forgiveness."
The Daily News asked Father Joe to condense the congregation's theology into three brief beliefs, and that was how he gamely encapsulated it.
What we're known for: "This is a place where people come to deal with impossible cases in their lives," Father Joe said. The shrine draws tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Believers have credited St. Rita with such miracles as clearing up their cancer or infertility issues. And when these faithful have babies, Father Joe said, "inevitably, they name them Rita. . . . With St. Rita's help, they feel they're able to deal with things."
Something that would probably surprise people: The core congregation is quite small, with about 600 members.
Good works: The ethnically diverse church offers English-as-a-second-language classes.
Big moral issue we're grappling with: Gun violence. The church is involved in an interfaith group that seeks tougher gun laws in Pennsylvania.
If pennies rained from heaven into our building-upkeep budget . . . The windfall would go toward paying off the loan the church took out to pay for a new roof and other structural maintenance. Any extra would go into the Cascia Center fund to complete a multipurpose building dedicated to peacemaking. They need $1 million for that project.
God is . . . good. God is love. God is "all we need to get us through the craziness of any given day," as Father Joe sees it.
God vs. cellphones: Cellphones inevitably go off five seconds after Father Joe asks his congregants to silence them, "and it's never just a ring. It's an outrageous rock song," he said.
Once, a penitent's cellphone rang while he was in the confessional. "He didn't answer but he got very flustered," Father Joe said.
Words of hope: "These are tough times. People are afraid. They're unsure because of the economy but also because of the state of the world," Father Joe said. "I would have to repeat Jesus' words: Do not fear, because God is with us. Whatever we do that is of God will always prevail."