It was the eve of Holy Week for the spring-cleaning crew at St. Helena's in Olney, a group of parishioners on a mission to deliver a near-spotless church for the most important week on the Christian calendar.

So while the Vietnamese women's group prayed downstairs, a funeral of a onetime Anglo member concluded in the lower church, and the Spanish-language choir prepared for rehearsal, Joseph Mensah stopped polishing the floors long enough to talk about how the church helped him after he emigrated from Ghana.

"When I came here, they employed me to work in the school," Mensah, 76, said Saturday. "Here, is like my home."

Mensah's "home" is a church that the retired maintenance worker describes as akin to his congregation in Ghana, where 15 African tribes worshipped together. But at St. Helena's, the 15 are 20 nationalities.

In one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods, the stone church that towers over the modest houses and storefronts near Fifth and Godfrey is a reflection of its surroundings. And on Saturday, so was the crew assembled for the church's spring cleaning.

A multicultural force of 40 met to prepare the building in what might be viewed as a dry run for another important week - the World Meeting of Families, Sept. 22-25 in Philadelphia, and Pope Francis' visit to the city Sept. 26-27.

The church will be the site of a Vietnamese community Mass on Saturday, Sept. 26.

"The pope has been invited," said Monsignor Joseph T. Trinh, the church's pastor. "We hope he is coming."

Pope Francis' Philadelphia itinerary has not been confirmed, but the congregation would be thrilled to welcome the 78-year-old leader of the world's Catholics.

If the pope visits, he will walk into a church that has evolved from its days as a predominantly Irish and German congregation.

"St. Helena's has changed - and it hasn't changed," said Paul Sullivan, of Hatfield Township, whose great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland and joined the parish in the late 1920s.

Back then, the church's Olney and East Oak Lane neighborhoods were largely Irish and German, said Sullivan, an engineer who grew up in the parish.

The area was a manufacturing hub with companies such as Fleer bubblegum, Breyers ice cream, and Canada Dry soft drinks operating in the area, said Bill Ivers, a parishioner whose parents also emigrated from Ireland.

But as residents moved to the suburbs and manufacturing abandoned the area, Vietnamese, Haitians, African Americans, Latinos, and other groups took the place of white residents in the rowhouses and in the pews.

The result is a St. Helena's with weekend Masses in Vietnamese, English, and Spanish. Trinh is from Vietnam. The Rev. Augusto Concha, the assistant pastor, is from Ecuador. The church's deacons are Anglo, African American, Latino, and Vietnamese. One of each.

The church's parish committees and traditions are equally diverse. Flags from the 20 countries represented in the parish are displayed prominently in the sanctuary. In a May devotional procession to the Virgin Mary, church members wave the flags in a parade around the neighborhood.

"One thing I tell people is that we may not have had the opportunity to build this church, but we have the opportunity to maintain it and beautify it," Trinh said.

Trinh added that he keeps the parish running smoothly by identifying leaders in each community to serve as officers in the church. Those leaders help promote church programming and encourage participation from the larger membership.

"He is very humble and he listens," parishioner Dave Cong Nguyen said of Trinh. "If he doesn't know the answer, he tells you to wait until he finds out," said Nguyen, 43, of Cheltenham, who serves on several church committees and coordinates monthly church cleanup efforts.

As the region prepares for the visit of Pope Francis, Trinh is juggling multiple responsibilities. He is the leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Vietnamese Apostolate and also serves as president of the 1.5 million-member Federation of Vietnamese Catholics, a national group.

Trinh and a large committee are coordinating local efforts to welcome the estimated 1,200 Vietnamese delegates from all over the world expected to visit Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and the pope's visit.

The committee is organizing housing, transportation, food, registration, and other logistics.

St. Helena's parishioners are excited about the pope's visit to the city, as well as his possible attendance at the church Mass.

Rey Velez, director of the church's Spanish-language choir, won't be able to contain himself if the pope does visit the parish.

"I'm ecstatic," said Velez, 34, of Fishtown. "Pope Francis is so humble, and he's Latino. We haven't had a Latino pope - ever," Velez said. " He's [a sign] the world is changing."

kholmes@phillynews.com

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