Newspaper columns, like a day in the life or best-laid schemes,

gang aft agley

- from the Scottish, for often goes awry. This is one of those columns. It starts in 1954, when a future Goretti girl named Cookie attended Sunday Mass for the first time at a different Catholic church than her South Philadelphia parish.

Many of you can probably visualize what a typical St. Maria Goretti High School student looked like back when girls disguised their Catholic school uniforms when they rushed from school to appear on a local TV dance show called Bandstand. And Cookie was all that, a typical Goretti girl, except her skin was the color of dark chocolate.

In 1954, when Cookie was 8 years old, her mother gave her permission to walk alone the six blocks from their home at Fifth and Carpenter Streets to attend 7 a.m. Mass at St. Paul's on the 900 block of Christian Street. Her parish was St. Peter Claver at 12th and Lombard, the "black" Catholic church.

Meekly, Cookie entered the doors of St. Paul's and walked down a side aisle. She sat in a pew that was empty except for a middle-aged white woman on the opposite side. When Cookie sat down, the white woman stood up and moved to a different pew.

Fifty-nine years later, Kathleen Elizabeth "Cookie" Vaughan, niece of jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, described the moment, her first confrontation with bald adult racism in a house of the Lord. "That lady broke my heart," Cookie said. "I never told anyone about that, not even my girlfriends."

On Dec. 1, I sat in an empty pew during the noon Mass at St. Paul's. There were lots of empty pews. At the appointed time, I stood with about 40 others and I walked toward the altar to receive communion from Cookie Vaughan, the newly appointed eucharistic minister, a lay person permitted to distribute communion. It was her first time.

She had come full circle. "My mother must be dancing in heaven," she said tearfully.

And now cue the gang aft agley.

It should have been a day of celebration. Instead, the big news announced from the pulpit that Sunday was that St. Paul's is going broke.

Father John Large, St. Paul's pastor since July, has one of those epic north-by-nor'east Philadelphia accents that can crack slate with a whisper. This is an accent forged in the Tacony Iron Works and case-hardened at the Frankford Arsenal. It's the accent that gave us three distinct syllables in otherwise two-syllable words such as Olney, Acme, and hoagie.

Perhaps it is a Darwinian survival-of-the-loudest result of attending Cardinal Dougherty High School in the mid-'60s, when it was said to be the largest Catholic high school in the world, with an enrollment of more than 6,000. At St. Paul's, Father Large's voice requires no amplification to be heard.

"There's been a lot of talk about sexual abuse in the archdiocese, but what about financial abuse?" he asked from the pulpit after distributing a financial report showing the alarming state of St. Paul's finances. In fiscal 2012, parish expenses exceeded income by more than $358,000.

At that rate, the historic South Philadelphia church founded in 1843 will exhaust its savings in about two years. "And the archdiocese isn't going to save you," Father Large said in his tough-love sermon.

Like a fire bell in the night, he declared: "We must get the word out to as many people as we can! Tell your neighbors! Tell your friends!"

The priest, who turned 64 in October, has had the unfortunate duty of overseeing the closing of two neighborhood parishes under his watch as pastor, Mater Dolorosa in Frankford and St. Joan of Arc in Harrowgate. He blames himself, as any Philadelphia Catholic schoolboy would.

"There are goers and there are growers," Father Large told me Wednesday. "Mine [parishes] didn't grow. But they [the archdiocese] don't fire priests. Instead they close parishes."

So the pastor has turned to his congregation, not for money as much as ideas, participation, communication, ownership. "I work for you," he said Dec. 1. "You don't work for me. You have a right to ask questions."

One of those never-answered questions among parishioners was, "Exactly how many $20,000 statues of St. Paul do we need?"

In 2007, the parish paid $40,000 for two life-size statues of St. Paul and his better half, St. Peter. They were installed on either side of the front of the church at the expense of two trees that had occupied that space. Ironically, the statue of St. Paul is depicted holding a sword.

Several stories above the sidewalk display is another statue of St. Paul, painted gold and looking fabulous, in a faux niche near the center peak of the gracious redbrick facade built 170 years ago.

What's it all mean? The Lord works in agley ways.