Filling the shoes of one of the city's most revered priests.
There are saints and prophets on all corners of Philadelphia, but on the 1400 block of North 11th Street few are Catholic and even fewer are Irish. So 50-year-old Father Kevin Lawrence, with a hardy laugh and soft, precise speech, might seem out of place--if he weren't taking over for another Irish Catholic.
In fact, the future of one of the most dynamic and independent parishes in the Philadelphia Archdiocese rests in Lawrence's hands. Yet the only thing anyone seems concerned about is that Lawrence doesn't write poetry. That's because Lawrence is replacing St. Malachy's Father John McNamee, a North Philadelphia icon.
To understand how difficult Lawrence's task will be, it's important to understand the legend 75-year-old John McNamee has become. In 1993 he published a memoir called Diary of a City Priest, which was adapted for film and screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. He published a volume of poetry, Donegal Suite, and his poems have been collected in anthologies. Locally, his Sunday sermons have been an attraction to some and salvation to others. His final solo sermon was last Sunday.
"Father McNamee has the personality that includes the elements of being a poet and a dreamer--in the good sense of the word," says Father James Flood, a seminary classmate of McNamee's who's a retired senior priest from St. Timothy's in Mayfair, where Lawrence spent his last five years. Flood adds, "Father Lawrence, to my knowledge, is not a poet."
St. Malachy's opened in January 1850 and served a primarily Irish Catholic community well into the 20th century. After World War II African-Americans moved to Philadelphia from the South, and white residents moved to the suburbs.
That migration was ancient history by the time Kevin Lawrence was growing up in Norristown, the son of a religious father. He joined the seminary in the 1980s, then spent much of the '90s working at a Center City homeless shelter.
Now Lawrence's new home is an inner-city parish funded by an elaborate network of donors from across the region.
"We try not to be dependent on the archdiocese at all," McNamee says.
Of course his significant star power has aided St. Malachy's in that endeavor. McNamee has tapped into the region's Irish community in a far broader way than have other parishes in the archdiocese.
The Notre Dame Alumni of Philadelphia organizes a 5-kilometer run in Chestnut Hill each year around St. Patrick's Day, with proceeds sent to St. Malachy's. For 20 years McNamee has also held an "Irish Concert" that raises more than $20,000 a year. In recent years that total has more than doubled.
But St. Malachy's benefits most from its adopt-a-student program, for which alumni, parish members and friends from throughout the region pay a portion of a student's tuition. Last year nearly $250,000 rolled in, McNamee says.
Naturally, there's some concern over whether a new priest could possibly keep up.
But Lawrence is a fundraiser in his own right, and by most accounts he's more methodical than McNamee. In his last years at St. Timothy's he launched the successful St. Timothy Alumni Remember program, which has so far brought in $60,000--a sizable sum for a startup initiative at an already well-funded parish.
"Father Lawrence does have the ability to reach beyond the physical boundaries of the parish," Flood says.
It also seems Lawrence doesn't have to fear losing the thousands who support St. Malachy's. Days after moving into the rectory living quarters that were McNamee's home for 25 years, Lawrence received a note from a Stratford, Pa., couple:
"Dear Father Lawrence, Welcome! Be assured of our continued support. May God be with you."
Lawrence will be just fine, McNamee assures anyone who asks. But Lawrence will take no chances.
Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor