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A church where brogue meets bodega

Documentary chronicles the changing demographics of Norristown.

The view from the balcony at St. Patrick's Church in Norristown, where the borough's burgeoning Latino population is helping revitalize a two-century-old parish.
The view from the balcony at St. Patrick's Church in Norristown, where the borough's burgeoning Latino population is helping revitalize a two-century-old parish.Read moreCourtesy of Noam Osband's film "Adelante"

Founded in 1835, St. Patrick's Church in Norristown is where many of the Irish immigrants who built the region's railroads worshiped and rejoiced amid the skirl of bagpipes.

Fast-forward almost two centuries, and many St. Patrick's worshipers are speaking Spanish, with mariachi trumpets in the air.

Starting about a decade ago, 1,000 to 1,500 Mexican immigrant families from the borough's burgeoning Hispanic population joined the church, spurring diversity with bilingual Masses and bringing vitality to a parish that 25 years ago closed its school because it couldn't draw enough students.

"Young people were moving out . . . older people were dying off . . . we thought maybe St. Patrick's would have to close" too, said parishioner Sally Christ, whose comments come early in Adelante, a lively documentary about the church and Norristown's changing demography.

With its massive stained-glass windows and towering sculpture of St. Patrick holding a shamrock, the church occupies an entire block along DeKalb Street, one of the borough's main arteries.

After waves of Irish and Italian immigration to the borough, a third wave of Hispanic immigrants now accounts for nearly a third of Norristown's population. St. Patrick's sits less than a mile from the borough's largely Latino West Marshall Street business corridor, replete with taquerias, bodegas, and multiservice shops selling international calling cards.

"When the Mexicans started coming in," said Christ, "that's when our [church] numbers went up greatly."

Written and directed by Noam Osband, 34, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, the 28-minute film was produced on a budget of less than $7,000. Released last year, it has been featured at film festivals and is set to air Friday at 10:30 p.m. on WHYY.

"Even in the best-case scenario, immigration is an intense dislocation from home," Osband said in an interview from his apartment in Brooklyn. "That's part of what I was trying to get across in the movie."

Raised in a devoutly Jewish home in Brookline, Mass., Osband spent summers at Camp Morasha in Lake Como, Pa. He graduated from Harvard University in 2003, got a master's in social anthropology from Oxford University in 2008, and is almost done with his studies in anthropology at Penn. His dissertation, to be presented as a film tentatively titled In the Pines, is about Mexicans who come to the United States as guest workers to plant trees for reforesting in Arkansas.

A bit of a ham and a natural performer, Osband has been a busker with a guitar outside Eagles games. For a year, he was a Teach for America instructor in Arkansas.

As a contestant on Jeopardy! in 2009 he won $25,000; two years later, on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, he walked away with $250,000.

The quarter-million went straight to his bank account; the Jeopardy! winnings bought a new video camera, computer for editing, and quality microphones, he said.

For a course at Penn about six years ago Osband produced a three-minute short - El Mercado Italiano - about ethnic changes in South Philadelphia's Italian Market area.

Armed with better sound and video equipment, he trained his new lens on Norristown in 2010.

"As somebody who grew up with a strong Jewish identity," he said, "the irony that my first feature-length movie is a loving portrayal of a Catholic church is not lost on me."

The film tracks the bittersweet wedding preparations of several Mexican couples whose parents can't attend the ceremony. It shows the couples' anguish because their immigration status makes it impossible to go back and forth between the United States and Mexico.

It shows Mexican and Irish parishioners sharing a St. Patrick's Day potluck luncheon, as well as the packed pews on Dec. 12, the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, which commemorates a vision of Mary in Mexico.

It addresses the challenges of mixed-status families, with undocumented parents and U.S.-citizen kids.

And it delves delightfully into the Irish Catholic upbringing of the Rev. William Murphy, pastor of St. Patrick's, who as a boy was so fascinated by "the mystery of Mass" that he played a game in which he draped a cloth on an ironing board and acted out Communion with his cousins.

An archdiocesan priest, Murphy learned to speak Spanish fluently a quarter-century ago in his first pastoral assignment at St. Agnes Parish in West Chester, whose congregation included a Puerto Rican community. He has since moved on to Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in West Grove.

Adelante, which roughly translated means move ahead, also highlights the merger of St. Patrick's former parish council and its Spanish parish council - "a little challenging sometimes because you have to repeat things in both languages," said Murphy, but a bridge worth building.

The film "celebrates [St. Patrick's] as a place where two cultures have met and it works," Osband said. "At the same time I am trying to say that immigration, even for people who are happy to be in the United States, doesn't come without its costs."

That sentiment is manifest in the tears of Hector and Maria Rios, a couple with three U.S.-born children, when he proposes to her with a ring he lovingly fashioned from the twist tie on a package of Mexican bread.

"It is a challenge to bring people of different languages and cultures together," Murphy says near the film's conclusion, "but this is just a little bit of a foretaste of what we believe the kingdom of God is going to be - everyone together, of all different languages, colors, and backgrounds."

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1