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Augustinians in Philadelphia: unravelling the first home of the Augustinian friars in the US

"The City of Brotherly Love," the moniker by which Philadelphia is fondly known, seems a fitting label for what was the first home of the Augustinian friars in the United States

The country had barely become "the United States" when two Irish Augustinians, Fathers John Rosseter OSA and Matthew Carr OSA, arrived in Philadelphia in 1794 to put down roots that would extend to the present day.

Philadelphia remains a centre of Augustinian ministry, with four vibrant parishes, the National Shrine of St Rita of Cascia, the Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor (ADROP), and many other ministries which, with information provided by the Province of St Thomas of Villanova, we can unpack for you here and now. 

Office of Justice and Peace, by Fr Jeremy R. Hiers

"I think the most exciting part of having an Augustinian vocation is the opportunity to live and drink from an age-old tradition," assures Fr Jeremy R. Hiers, of the Province's Office of Justice and Peace.

"We are called to form communities of justice and peace through genuine Christian love as we live and work for the common good of all. Our province is blessed to have numerous ministries that witness to this: our parishes create community and provide ministry to support the specific needs of their local neighbourhoods; and our schools help the future leaders of our society learn how to apply our tradition to the justice and peace issues of our day." 

Care and renewal are often prerequisites for justice and peace, a point recognised by Fr Hiers.  "As we look at the many problems society faces today, we see a world that is suffering from a lack of peace precisely because there is a lack of justice. This is our time to witness to something much better, just as Augustine did 1600 years ago. All of us who serve in these ministries are also transformed by them and our common life continues to grow stronger. In my nine years living the Augustinian way of life I have personally witnessed this time and again." 

The National Shrine of St Rita of Cascia: "No one is a stranger to an Augustinian"

In the heart of South Philadelphia, just a mile from City Hall, in a modest but historic Catholic church on Broad Street, sits the spiritual oasis of the Shrine of St Rita of Cascia. 

Founded in 1907, it is an unwavering source of Augustinian spirituality that tells the story of St Rita,  which thousands of visitors relate to each year. 

"The Shrine is not only committed to serving the needs of the local community, but also to reaching the hearts and minds of devoted patrons and future patrons across the country," says Shrine director Fr Jonathan Jerome.

Each year, pilgrims from every US state and many other countries make their way to South Philadelphia to honour St Rita and ask for her powerful intercession. St Rita, one of the few saints in our Catholic tradition who lived every Christian vocation, is known as the patron saint of impossible cases. She shattered social conventions when she brokered a peace agreement between her family and the family that murdered her husband more than 600 years ago. 

‘No one is a stranger to an Augustinian’

"Since then, her example of perseverance and reconciliation has been an inspiration to millions of people around the world to know, love and serve God more fully," notes Fr Jerome.

Today, her legacy is most visible through the Shrine’s established ministries and pastoral programming: although not a parish, the Shrine offers daily opportunities to attend Mass and participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation; nor is the Shrine a community centre, but it offers a safe space for psycho-spiritual counselling and healing; and nor is the Shrine a school, but it offers retreats and pilgrimages tailored for everyone, student and adult alike. No other ministry or church provides access to the sacraments, counselling and formation like the Shrine, and they do it every day of the year! 

As one friar said, thanks to the diversity of our ministries, "no one is a stranger to an Augustinian." 

By working for the common good of all, we grow closer to God and our neighbours.

St Augustine's Parish, which President Washington helped build, by Fr William F. Waters, OSA, Pastor 

It is impossible to speak of the Augustinians in Philadelphia without speaking of St Augustine Parish in Old City. Founded in 1796, it was the first permanent establishment of the Order of St Augustine anywhere in the United States. 

Fr William F. Waters, pastor of St Augustine's, shares its unique story. 

President George Washington, Commodore John Barry and merchant Stephen Girard contributed funds for the construction of the original church, which was completed in 1801. The church came to house the sister bell of the Liberty Bell, which was hanging in the steeple when the church was destroyed by anti-Catholic riots in 1844 and which, after 175 years of travel, was returned to its original home.

1847 saw the completion of the new church, which is still standing. Its beautiful ceiling frescoes are the oldest of any religious building in the United States, and the walls are decorated with eight large paintings depicting the life of St. Augustine. To enhance this beauty, the parish also has two choirs and is renowned for both its musical programme and its preaching.

Inside the largest Sinulog celebration outside the Philippines

The Shrine of the Santo Niño of Cebu was installed in 1992. The Santo Niño, an image of the Infant Jesus produced by Flemish artists in the early 16th century and brought to the Philippines by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, is the sacred object most revered by Filipino Catholics and is credited with countless miracles. Since the shrine was installed, St Augustine has become a centre of Filipino activities in the tri-state area. Every August, the parish celebrates the Feast of Sinulog, with its associated novena and procession throughout the Old City. It is usually attended by over a thousand people, and is the largest Sinulog celebration outside the Philippines. 

The parish also has a vibrant youth community, which gets together on the first Saturday of every month. Approximately 50 to 60 weddings are celebrated here each year, and about 30 men and women have undergone the Christian initiation process to become Catholics in the past nine years. 

The National Catholic Reporter noted in 2017 that the parish integrated many of Pope Francis' initiatives within its ministry, including: serving dinners twice a month to guests of Gift of Life Family House, a non-profit organisation that coordinates life-saving and life-enhancing transplants while supporting generous donors and their families who have volunteered to give others a second chance at life through organ donation. 

The parish also rents part of its property to the Women of Hope shelter, serving women suffering from chronic mental illness who were previously homeless; Vagabond, which equips young adults to serve as Catholic missionaries; and a Veterans Multi-Service Centre.

"Breaking bread" in the halls of St Paul’s Parish, by Fr Paul W. Galetto

St Paul’s Parish calls itself the "soul at the heart of the Italian market." 

Founded in 1843, just a block from the famous 9th Street Market, it was one of three churches serving the Italian-American community of South Philadelphia. The other two - Our Mother of Good Counsel and St Mary Magdalene of Pazzi - merged with St Paul's in 1933 and 2000, respectively. Interestingly, Our Mother of Good Counsel had previously been an Augustinian parish, but the newly combined parish did not see an Augustinian again until Fr Paul was named pastor in 2022.

The parishioners welcomed the Augustinians with open arms. Last November, the prior provincial, Fr Rob Hagan OSA, with twenty years of service to the people of St Paul’s and St Mary Magdalene of Pazzi, was honoured with an event in the beautiful venue, Ballroom at the Ben. The parish is still growing. Almost every month they have a welcome weekend, each with a different food theme. Parishioners bake and cook so they can “break bread” with each other and celebrate the parish family. The average age is about 35, and this group of young people has inspired an initiative called “The Mix”, which brings together young professionals and recent college graduates to celebrate their faith and help lead the future of the Church. They are committed to their faith.



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