National News

Former Philly Church Is Now an Ungodly Den for Heroin Addicts

By Gina Christian

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) – Philadelphia’s ongoing struggle with opioid addiction has found an epicenter in the Kensington section of the city, where open-air heroin sales, drug usage and overdoses have become commonplace.

In response to public outcry, city officials and law enforcement have intensified patrols of “heroin hotspots” in the area. As a result, many of those who are addicted and homeless have sought shelter in other parts of the neighborhood.

According to Father Liam Murphy of Mother of Mercy House, Kensington, several people recently took refuge in the former Ascension of Our Lord Church building.

After the parish closed in 2012 due to low membership, the church was relegated to nonreligious use by canonical decree and put up for sale.

The property was sold to a real estate investor in 2014 for $800,000 even though it had a market value of $3.5 million – yet it needed at least $3 million in repairs, according to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The sale was one indicator of how far the church, which at one time was one of the largest in the city, had declined. The same could be said of its working-class neighborhood that today is one of the city’s most troubled.

It also is the mission field for Mother of Mercy House, a Catholic neighborhood outreach launched in 2015.

Father Murphy, who staffs Mother of Mercy along with Sister Ann Raymond Welte, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Father Joseph Devlin, said that he learned of the addicts’ new shelter from a tip.

So many addicts were in the church that “it looked like they were waiting for Mass to start,” he said.

Father Murphy and Sister Ann decided to visit them as part of Mother of Mercy’s regular “neighborhood walks,” an evangelization effort that “lets people know that Mother of Mercy House is here, the Catholic Church is here, and we’re present in case anyone would want to stop by,” Sister Ann told, news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

During the walks, the Mother of Mercy team gives out snacks, information cards and words of encouragement.

But the visit to those sheltering in the former Ascension Church left both Father Murphy and Sister Ann almost speechless.

“There was something haunting about it,” Father Murphy said. “The people were in a daze. You could see the drug paraphernalia; it smelled of urine and whatnot.”

Those inside the former church were surprised to see the priest and the sister in full religious garb, but they were receptive to the unexpected pastoral visit.

“One guy actually said, ‘Oh no, you’re not taking the place back, are you? You’re not gonna make it a church again?’” said Father Murphy. “They were actually glad to show us around.”

The priest and religious sister attempted to learn more about those souls finding shelter in the former “cathedral of Kensington,” where city workers in recent days sealed up entrances to the crumbling structure.

While some were so high that “couldn’t have had a coherent conversation,” Father Murphy recalled “there was one gentleman who really talked to us. He did admit that he was addicted. He had some clean time but was back in the addiction.”

The man asked his visitors for prayers to conquer his devastating habit.

The team at Mother of Mercy – which was created as a “storefront” church to enhance the archdiocese’s pastoral presence after Ascension’s closure – understands that pain.