THE HOLY SPIRIT Parish complex at 18th and Hartranft streets in Packer Park was founded 50 years ago this week, and Gina Falgiatore was on the groundbreaking crew a year later. Her husband dug one of the first holes, and when he took his shovel home, he painted it gold and tied a bow around it as a sign of accomplishment and his love for the parish.
Yesterday, Falgiatore, 83, stood crying in the pews. Longtime friends and fellow parishioners helped wipe away her tears. At morning Mass, the Rev. Mark Kunigonis had just announced what many had been expecting.
On July 1, Holy Spirit will merge with St. Richard Parish, becoming one of 16 parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that will close its doors and merge with a neighboring parish.
"I don't trust or believe in the Archdiocese anymore," Falgiatore said. "I've done everything in this church except put in the brick and mortar."
Kunigonis - who said his last name is Lithuanian for "son of the Lord," - delivered the news in a somber tone.
"It's been a pleasure and a pain, we know that," Kunigonis said in his homily. "Life isn't easy, but we have to move forward. We can't dwell in the past."
Holy Spirit's numbers had been steadily declining. In 2012, only three baptisms were conducted and six marriages performed. Mass averaged 185 attendees each weekend.
By contrast, St. Richard Parish performed 45 baptisms and 12 marriages in 2012, when weekend Mass attendance averaged 656.
About 60 parishioners attended yesterday's Mass at Holy Spirit, leaving perhaps 85 percent of the pews empty. Kunigonis' homily was louder with one microphone than the entire crowd reciting the Apostles' Creed in unison. When Kunigonis instructed his parish to exchange the sign of peace, the parishioners had to wave to one another across the pews. There just weren't enough people filling the seats to turn around and give a handshake.
But Holy Spirit is not unique. The Archdiocese announced yesterday that it would close 16 parishes in Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware and Philadelphia counties, merging them with 13 neighboring parishes. The remaining 17 that were under review are unaffected. After July 1, the Archdiocese will have 219 parishes, down from 266 in 2010, the last time changes were made.
The merge of Holy Spirit and St. Richard is the only new change in Philadelphia. St. Edmond and St. Monica parishes have been merged for a year. St. Edmond, at 20th and Snyder streets, will remain open.
The mergers were decided after examining attendance, facilities and the ratio of available priests to churches, according to a statement from the Archdiocese.
But Robert Hughes, 70, of South Philly, who had been the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at the parish in the '80s, said he believes the merger had to happen because "the [young] people don't come to church."
Yesterday, not a single crying baby was heard inside the building, and three people - one couple and a single male - appeared to be the only ones younger than 45 years old.
Anne "Sis" Prisco, 79, of Packer Park, answered phones from crying friends all weekend. After being in the parish for all of its 50 years, she said she could only describe herself as "heartsick."
"I'm not shocked," Prisco said. "I'm disappointed."
She said that she saw the merger coming when Holy Spirit Elementary School merged with St. Richard Catholic School to form St. Pio Catholic Regional School in September 2012. Kunigonis said that Holy Spirit had started with more than 800 students and declined to 119 just before the merger.
Kunigonis, who will transfer to St. Jerome's in the Northeast, said he considers the merger a positive step - a glimmer of hope shining in through the parish's blue stained-glass windows.
"Together, I believe [the merger] can make the community a much stronger and vibrant area and will strengthen the faith," he said.