For 20 years, Abigail Ortega has been ringing church bells in southern Chester County to signal the start of Mass. But he’s never tugged more proudly on the long hemp rope than he does at St. Rocco Catholic Church. Here, the 68-year-old Ortega can finally worship in full.
Prior to one Saturday-night vigil in October, Ortega pulls down at just the right speed. Each of the dozen rebounds nearly pulls him off his feet, and you can see his white socks. But he’s not letting go for anything.
Based in Avondale, St. Rocco is the only national Catholic parish for Hispanics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, drawing from the dozens of mushroom-farm camps that many call home throughout the region.
With an architectural style much like that of Mission San Juan Capistrano in California, the new church on Sunny Dell Road in New Garden Township opened to a crowd of some 3,000 last Aug. 16—feast day for St. Rocco, the Roman Catholic Church’s venerated protector against contagious diseases. An ethnically centered church, it elevates the former Misión Santa María, Madre de Dios to a full-fledged parish. For decades, the mission was providing Spanish-speaking services at five neighboring Catholic parishes in West Grove, New Garden, Oxford, Parkesburg and Kennett Square.
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As it turns out, a modern-day Rocco made the substantial seed donation to build the 500-seat church and turn an existing building into offices. In 2006, Rocco Abessinio, a Wilmington, Del., banker and businessman, read about the mission’s needs. “He wanted to build a church dedicated to his patron saint,” recalls Monsignor Frank Depman, the mission’s chaplain and now the pastor at St. Rocco. “I said we could use a little chapel. He said, ‘No, you want a church.’”
Ortega calls Abessinio “the moneyman.” He and about 20 others had formed their own Spanish-speaking church in 1970, meeting with the Archdiocese to plead for help in starting their own parish. Every time, they were told there was “no means and no money,” says Ortega.
Today’s 12,000-member parish is made up of mostly Mexican immigrants and other Hispanics from Puerto Rico, Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala and other Latin American countries. “It’s magnificent, the church here,” Ortega says through an interpreter, Cynthia DeStafney, the parish business manager. “We always thought it would happen, because we worked so hard to allow it to happen.”
As a teenager, DeStafney began to wonder why her people didn’t have a nice church of their own and why they always had to travel. She now lives in Delaware, but still attends St. Rocco. “We’re a big family,” says DeStafney, who also keeps beat with a tambourine and sings in the parish choir. “Plus, I didn’t know how to pray in English.”
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Preferring to stay behind the scenes, Abessinio declined an interview for this story. Parishioners call him “Mr. Rocco,” and most see him as nothing less than a savior. “We kept holding on, hoping it was true—and when it was, it was almost surreal,” says DeStafney. “We would’ve never raised enough money. Or, if we did, by then the price of the church would’ve gone up. Now, we’re all digging deeper into our pockets to maintain this gift.”
And since Abessinio is Italian, it tells parishioner Raul Ayllon “that God wants all races to come together as one.”
There’s also a church called St. Rocco in Moroleón, a town in Guanajuato, Mexico. Many of the area’s Mexican transplants come from there.
For St. Rocco Catholic Church in Avondale, the two banks of oak pews were moved, a pair at a time, with equipment normally used to move palettes of mushrooms. Furnishings were salvaged from Allentown, Bethlehem and other closed churches—even the large antique plaster stations of the cross. Mercedes Leyva, a commercial artist and St. Rocco parishioner, restored and painted those.
Above the tabernacle behind the altar, a marble likeness of St. Rocco was crafted by Italian carvers who work for the Vatican. Rocco is depicted with his pilgrim’s staff and the dog that faithfully and miraculously sustained him by bringing food when he was a once-afflicted cave dweller. He’s lifting his cloak to show his left leg wound—unique, say theologians, since few images of saints expose afflictions or handicaps.
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Kennett Square artist Neilson Carlin painted the portraits of former Pope John Paul II, Mother Francesca Xavier Cabrini (patron saint of immigrants in the United States), St. Toribio Romo (patron saint of Mexican immigrants who cross the border) and St. Gianna Beretta Molla (patroness of unborn children, mothers and healthcare professionals). The altar’s backdrop features gold-gilded highlights on a Spanish-style retablo.
“The purpose is to inspire, to give them something about how the church relates to their daily lives,” says Depman.
Two priests—fathers Charles Kennedy and James Catagnus—began the outreach before Depman, who started in 1990. Today, Father Andrés García Arambula, a native Mexican, helps serve the parish, along with four missionary nuns.
Depman learned Spanish on the streets of North Philadelphia. He also took a crash course at Drexel University’s Newman Center, though languages have never been his forte. “It’s been a struggle,” he says. “It has not come naturally.”
DeStafney says Depman is now so fluent that he sometimes forgets he can speak English. But, in every imaginable language, “Father has been our godsend,” she says.
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Thousands attend six Masses each weekend. Abessinio attends the English-speaking Mass on Sunday mornings when he’s in town. St. Rocco’s religious-education program serves 1,200 children, who are transported in six school buses. A year ago, there were 440 baptisms, more than any other parish in the archdiocese.
Most church services previously celebrated in local parishes have been absorbed into the full schedule at St. Rocco. “The Mexican faith is strong no matter how far we have to go,” says Ayllon, a truck driver who delivers packaging to mushroom farms. “Now, we’re coming with our wives and kids, and we’re working hard to teach our kids not just to work for their community, but for the whole country. One day, it will be their country.”
Sister Jane Houtman has been serving the mission since 1983, mostly with immigration applications and translation. “This is more than just a building—it’s a parish,” she says of St. Rocco. “There’s such a sense of belonging. The people really responded; they are the backbone. There’s tremendous pride in whatever each can contribute.”
Depman used to drive 40,000 miles a year in a minivan, traveling from camp to camp to pick up parishioners. Today, the community is more independent and mobile. For the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, a series of celebrations in homes and neighborhoods spilled over into the church, and the images remain up for all to see.
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In a faith shaken by the recent crisis and controversy in the church, St. Rocco’s parish is a shining star.
“Everyone in life has those purifying moments in which you learn how to become a better person, organization and church,” Depman says. “The church has always had its ups and downs, but we’re constantly called by Christ for that conversion and for the ability to put aside whatever has been done wrong and to more faithfully follow Him. It’s why we hear confessions during every Mass.”
At Mass, “amen” is universal, as is “hallelujah.” Parishioners’ crying babies sound a universal language, too. An hour before Mass, out in the parking lot, one can hear the vibrant sounds of a choir with a distinctly upbeat Spanish twang. Later, when the service ends and the full church empties, their voices drift off into the night as dusk turns to darkness.
To learn more, visit stroccochurch.org.