Father Liam Murphy and Sister Ann Raymond, along with Father Joseph Devlin, run a Catholic Mission called the Mother of Mercy House on Allegheny Avenue. They talked with PPR as part of our series on the Philadelphia Opioid Crisis. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Penn Political Review: How long have you been a sister and how long have you been here in Kensington?
Sister Ann Raymond: I’ve been a sister 53 years and I’ve been here in Kensington for the two years that mother of Mercy house has been open – we just celebrated our second anniversary. Now I had worked in a neighborhood before in the area, but Mother of Mercy house just started two years ago so.
PPR (to Father Murphy): And have you been here since mother as well?
Father Murphy: Yes, it was actually Fr. Develin, myself, and Sister who started it. The reason it started was because all of the Catholic churches in this area closed because, there was a lot of poverty and there weren’t a lot of parishioners and the ones that were there tended to be poor and couldn’t afford these big buildings, and so the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Chaput, was mentioning at a priest’s convocation that even though we’re closing the buildings because they’re not right anymore, we didn’t want to leave the neighborhood, we needed to be in the neighborhood, and he would like to do something creative like start a storefront church if anyone was up for that, so I spoke to him and told him I would really like to try something like that.
So eventually we started down the street, at an old bar at G and Allegheny, and just opened a storefront ministry, which consisted of being there everyday, offering a daily mass, walking the neighborhood, getting to know the people that were there… on Thursdays we give out groceries at 9:30. We’ve been giving about 80 bags a week, right?
SAR: Yeah, today it was 88!
FM: And a big part of our ministry is, which is more where the drug situation comes in, is we walk the streets everyday. Two big places are McPherson Park and Harrogate Park. We would just walk everywhere and say hi to everyone, but they are two big places where we would find a lot of drug addicts and homeless people sitting on the benches and what not, and we would just have a backpack with us and we would have those little boxes that have the tuna and crackers already made in it, or chicken salad already made in it, or juice and what not, and we’d offer food and talk to the people, talk to whoever wanted to talk, and you’d be surprised at how many wanted us to pray with them. We’d never force that on anyone, but they’d tell their life story and readily admit how they messed this up or that up, and they are really just ready to tell you that. They are not as always ready to go in for help, we always offer that – we don’t have it here, but we have taken a few people to the hospital where they can enter detox, but when you’re in the mix of the addiction, you’re not always as ready.
One day we’re in Harrogate park, and they’re ripping up all the benches and we’re like well they must be getting new benches, and they’re like ‘no, we’re taking them out so the homeless and the drug addicts can’t sit there.’ It’s kind of silly, because there are families there too. I haven’t been there in a couple weeks, do kids play in the park still?
SAR: I haven’t seen any, I drove past it earlier this week, but there wasn’t anybody in the park.
FM: McPherson was really, really getting crowded with drugs, and people would shoot up right in front of you, and the cops came in and cleaned it out, and that’s where the issue comes in, and we wrestled with it because its good, because the kids play in there, and it’s a nice park, really. The problem is those who are addicted to drugs aren’t there anymore, but we haven’t solved any problems.
SAR: Now they’re on the street.
FM: and then Sister found out about them being in Ascension (Catholic Church).
SAR: A worker I was talking to, he had just been up there working and had stopped in.
FM: And so we decided one day to take a walk up and we found a way to sneak in and that’s where we discovered people, some of them living there on the ground floor which would have been the basement of the church, there were just people maybe just shooting up and resting. And then we went upstairs and there was actually a mattress, and there was people sleeping there, and some in a zombie state, again very ready to talk to us, some of them.
SAR: Some of them that could talk.
FM: Yes, those that could talk. So we discovered, and we were told that it gets much more crowded. I took two pictures and posted them on Facebook, and then the Inquirer called and asked if they could do a story, which is fine. It was a fair story, quite frankly – Mike Newall did a great job. His whole point was the City’s got to think of a better way to deal with this. They’re going from one place to another to another, and no one is really being helped. But then the next day, the cops were there, kicking them out, even out giving them citations, which was just ridiculous, you know – they’re gonna pay a fine? You’re kidding, right? It’s not gonna work guys (laughs).
So we’re a very small place. We’re not going to solve all the drug issues. What we do what people to know is that if they come here if they ask we will do everything we can, we have connections where we can get them help and get them into detox. Sometimes, quite frankly, they just stop by and they’re not ready to get the help they need but we they want water, juice, or food and we can –
SAR: Or just somebody to bless them. People ask for a blessing all the time. I mean, they do have that sense that they know they’re in trouble but they don’t know how to get out of it.
FM: Yeah, and for lack of a better term, the “secular world” doesn’t get it, but I was surprised at how much they ask for a blessing. You know what it is, is when they’re in that state where they know they’ve messed up, if there is a God they want to know that God still loves them. And I think through not just us, there are other groups that help, but through people like us and other groups that help them, especially church-affiliated groups, they feel a little bit of hope that there is someone who’s not judging them. They know that we certainly don’t agree with drugs and that it’s not good for them and what not, but that we’re not going to judge them and we’re here to support them.
PPR: So where are people gathering now since they’ve kicked them out of McPherson and Ascension?
SAR: Actually, there’s so many on the street. I mean, a woman across the street was just standing shaking, shaking, shaking, and her eyes were rolling around. She had no control of anything. So the bike police came, the fire engines came, the ambulance came, and they put her on a stretcher and take her away. So I think you’re seeing more and more on the streets, and any little alleyway they can find that there is some shade, because they sun is just so strong. Anywhere they can find that’s shady. I don’t know of any other location, except for anywhere where they can find shade.
FM: It’s almost like zombie-land sometimes, because you see people walking around like this. In the winter they tend to find the abandoned houses and stay inside, but Sister is right – I think there is even more on the streets.
And you hear from the neighbors that are not addicted. They’re happy the police are here, but they’re just a little bit cynical. Not at the police, but they’re like ‘Well, when the police go away, which they will, they can’t do this forever, they’ll be back.’ Again, the issue hasn’t been addressed. And even if they do stick around long enough, which I don’t think they will, for them to leave here, well, they’ll be further up Frankford Avenue getting into Mayfair. They’ll be somewhere else.
SAR: Yeah I don’t think they’ll go anywhere too soon though, because this is where all the drugs are. And the drug people aren’t going to leave their homes. Two of the bike police that I know stopped by the other day and they were saying that it’s not just like a person, it’s like a three or four Ring Thing. We have your guy on the corner that always calling out anyone want them and he kind of tells them where to go. And then there’s another guy further down either in a house or whatever and the first guy calls and then he comes out and takes the money and then there’s somebody else that comes out a little further down who gives them the drugs after they’ve paid.
FM: It’s really well organized.
SAR: This afternoon, the girl that I was telling you about that was just so spacey, this sister had called me over, so I went over, and the lookout of the drugs was still on the corner, so then she was trying to figure out so I call the ambulance, should I call the ambulance, etc, and two bike police were coming up Allegheny, and so I was like well there’s two bike police coming, so why don’t you just let them take it and see what they do. So she said fine. So the guy that’s on the corner of the drug Lookout starts shouting down the street and then all the sudden he disappeared. and so I thought well I guess we interrupted their thing for the next hour ( laughs). he never showed up again until the fire and ambulance had all left, and then he was right back out on the corner again.
FM: Last year we did a mass in Hope Park. I can’t remember what it was that made us pick there – oh, it was in the paper that that is a really big drug place, and we had actually walked all the way over there one day and I wasn’t out of my car for 30 seconds and they’re like 10 guys around me and they were like:
“What are you doing here, what are you doing here, what are you doing here?”
And I was like ‘Oh we’re going to have a mass in the park.’
‘You’re having a mass in our park?’
‘Yeah, gonna get the neighbors together!’
‘Why don’t you pick another Park?’
‘No, we’re gonna do it here.’
And so we ended up having it and the cops came you know just to be there and keep us safe and one of them said to us you know he was fine he was perfectly happy to be there but he said you know I hope you guys know that you’re interrupting a million-dollar add a business right here (laughs). And so he says you know they may not be too happy with you.
But it was just kind of interesting because you know a lot of the people are Hispanic which means if not still are at least were catholic so they see this Catholic mass going on. some came over a lot sat on their steps at a distance and watched as if it was a little too dangerous to come over but you would see them praying along, so it was kind of neat, neat and sad everything at the same time.
The other day on Somerset, the cops blocked off the street and had a block party for the kids. And they brought in games and the big balloon things that you jump in. And they interviewed a father, and he said “This is wonderful, because I never ever let my kid out on the street just to play on the block. I’d never let my kid run up and down the street. I’d just be too afraid. But today we can. The cops are here for Pete’s sake. we have the whole block!” This is how it should be every day.
PPR: For students like us, is there any small thing we can be doing to be helpful in this community?
FM: There is no supermarket around – it’s just the corner stores where you can get the junk food. So they get the corner stores where they get all the junk food, their kids are eating all this junk food, none of their kids are eating healthy, they don’t know what a healthy meal is. that’s not an exaggeration I don’t think they do know what a healthy meal is.
SAR: They don’t. There are no gardens or anything like that, there’s no one to grow any vegetables or anything around here for them to eat, probably some of them don’t even know what vegetables are. Really.
FM: And you do see a lot of times, you’ll see mom’s walking with their kids, and they have a pizza, they have a McDonald’s bag, Or sometimes people in their houses will sell fried food that they make, and they’ll sell it for a buck. Which is delicious but you know –
PPR: – it’s not a way to live.
FM: Yeah. So those kind of things. It’s not drug-related, but it is drug-related in that you’re hoping for the future. Even after school things for kids, mentoring, teaching how to study, you know tutoring with issues that they might have, classes they might have issues with Tama no I even think quite frankly teaching them how to sit down, open a book, and study.
PPR: Thank you so much.