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In Delaware County, a beloved Catholic church’s future is uncertain

St. Cyril's last Mass will be on Christmas Day, Fr. Paul Castellani said in a memo.

St. Cyril's Church at 153 Penn Boulevard in Lansdowne, Delaware County, PA.
St. Cyril's Church at 153 Penn Boulevard in Lansdowne, Delaware County, PA.Read moreKatie Park / Staff

St. Cyril of Alexandria Roman Catholic Church in East Lansdowne has been the backdrop for some of the most important moments of Amanda Lynch Titerence's life.

Baptisms, First Communions, weddings, all held in the cavernous, gilded church studded with rainbow-hued windows. There were funerals, too, providing comfort and grace in times of sadness after the deaths of her grandfather and brother. The church, she said, is a mainstay in the small, mostly Catholic borough.

"People from kindergarten to 90 years old — people in this area know St. Cyril's," said Titerence, 35.

But the future of St. Cyril's, founded in 1928, remains uncertain. The church's pastor says the building urgently needs repairs that far exceed what the congregation can afford.

Leaks have damaged the interior and people can no longer come in through the main entrance, the Rev. Paul Castellani said in a recent memo to parishioners.

He did not specify the cost of repairs, but said it was prohibitive. As a consequence, he said, St. Cyril's would hold its last Mass on Christmas. He stopped short of saying  the church, which came under nearby St. Philomena's parish in a 2013 merger, would shut down.

Reached by phone, Castellani deferred to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Ken Gavin, spokesman for the archdiocese, said any decision to close the church after Christmas Mass would hinge on a formal canonical process called a "request for relegation."

"As that process has not yet been initiated, I would not be able to comment further at this time on that matter," Gavin said in an email.

Longtime current and former parishioners, including many from the borough's thriving Haitian community, had long suspected that the church was not doing well.

Recent years, parishioners say, have not been kind to St. Cyril's — or to several other local churches that have closed or merged with nearby parishes amid dwindling attendance and a sex-abuse scandal that has roiled the Catholic Church for more than a decade.

"I don't want to see the plug necessarily pulled, but I fear that's what's going to happen," said former parishioner Nicholas Hoyt. He was baptized at St. Cyril's, but when he married in 2006, the service was held at St. Philomena's, about a mile away in Lansdowne.

Titerence, too, was baptized at St. Cyril's. She remembers when there were daily Masses at the church. Today, there are just two Masses each week: one in English, the other in Haitian Creole.

"It's a time to gather with our own community," said Walky Joseph, who has attended the Haitian Mass at St. Cyril's for 12 years. "We are all Haitian. We gather, we do the same things, we have the same goals."

But over time, parishioners said, many faithful attendees have moved away, leaving behind thinly filled pews.

At a recent Sunday morning Mass, parishioners quietly greeted each other, then turned to kneel in prayer, some clasping their hands to their foreheads. As the church doors closed at the start of Mass, the sparsely filled hall fell silent as the familiar communal prayers began.

Titerence, a longtime Delaware County resident, nearly winces, thinking that St. Cyril could shut down.

"Generations of my family have gone there," she said as she sat at a lacquered wooden booth in a nearby coffee shop on a recent sunny afternoon. "We would go every Sunday. My grandparents would be in the choir and sing beautifully. I mean, the church would be packed. Every Sunday."

Titerence, a mother of four, hopes the church will stay open long enough that one day her children could get married there.

"It's the pillar, the backbone, of East Lansdowne," she said.

Titerence recalls how, in 2006, when the parish school was threatened with closure, Tommy Geromichalos, a St. Cyril sixth grader who was battling cystic fibrosis, implored through the Make-a-Wish Foundation that his school remain open, contrary to the plans of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

It worked. Donations poured in and the doors stayed open. Years later, the school, though no longer affiliated with the archdiocese, still stands.

Now, with the pastor's memo in mind, Titerence said, she and others are looking for ways to raise money for the church.

"It's a shame it sometimes takes something like this to open people's eyes," she said.

The future of the church ultimately lies largely with Castellani, who in tandem with his parish finance and pastoral council advisory bodies makes decisions for St. Cyril, Gavin said.

Propelled by her attachment to St. Cyril, Titerence is looking for any way to keep the church going.

She's got two months.

"For it to fall apart in shambles like this," she said, "it's just heartbreaking."