McPherson Square

Sharon Christner final headshot

A tiny girl cupped her eyes against a tree and yelled numbers as fast as she could remember them. “Fifteen… sixteen… seventeen…”

Seven kids screamed and scattered in seven directions. Seeing nowhere else to go, they huddled together behind the large white trailer marked “Police Mobile Command.” “Ready or not, here I come!”

The park was theirs again. That summer McPherson Square had been cleared of squatters and, largely, of heroin use. ‘Needle Park’ was still littered with weeds and trash, but no longer with bodies or needles. Users had been forced elsewhere.

The McPherson Square Library crowned the center of the square. Its Ionic columns and vaulted central rotunda distinguished it from the cramped rowhomes facing into the park. The path to the library steps was lined with slanted benches where people once blacked out. Now three homeless men sat and shared a benign cigar. A prostitute waited at the Kensington Avenue edge of the park and accepted a sandwich from a church outreach volunteer. Across the street, another prostitute stared her down. Every six minutes the El screeched by.

Father Murphy and Father Devlin, dressed in lay clothes, set up a folding table for an altar between the police van and playground. Sister Anne brought over a box holding the elements of communion, holding it aloft to keep fifty curious fingers from appropriating the chalice and hosts inside. Two men in the brown robes of Franciscan friars sauntered up the lawn, unstrapped guitars from their backs and began to play softly while a volunteer fiddled with microphones.

The ever-growing throng of kids swarmed a volunteer named Judy as she set out water bottles and a Philly Pretzel Factory box in the back of the lawn. When Judy mentioned summer bible camp, 9-year-old Imani became serious. “I saw Jesus before,” she said, mouth full of pretzel. “He was walking downtown. He had one of them cane things.”

No one had the heart to tell her about the renowned street performer, Philly Jesus.

The kids plopped down on the clover-filled lawn. The younger ones, still leery of the grass at Needle Park, sat on towels and bags and shoes.

A man decked out in Phillies garb came by on his bike. “What’s going on?”

“Mass,” said the kid on the Trader Joes bag.

“What they givin’ out, pretzels or something?”

The kids nodded in unison.“Imma be here,” he said, taking off again. He stopped and looked back at the little congregation. “Not for pretzels, but for the Lord.”

Small groups of abuelas came up the lawn armed with beach chairs and besos for everyone. They shuffled over to the table and made sure everyone had a pretzel in hand. A couple of grandmothers from the suburbs came too, a little older and a little quieter. This wasn’t their neighborhood, but their sons or grandsons had come to Kensington to get high and never came home. They waved away gnats and nestled into their lawn chairs under a large maple. Addiction specialists, volunteer musicians, and recovering folks chatted like old friends. Imani carefully wrote “JEASUS LOVE YOU” on sticky notes and handed them to strangers.

Father Murphy, Father Devlin, and a deacon reappeared in their green and white vestments. It was a gracious September afternoon, and rustling oaks and sycamores forgave some of the park’s less appealing features. A single couch cushion rested on the path at the edge of the green, not far from an unexplained pile of meatballs and spaghetti sauce. The grass still held thousands of orange needle caps, each one a reminder of syringes past. But everyone talked and laughed freely; everyone was at ease. It had more the atmosphere of an outdoor wedding than of a mass for those affected by addiction.

Father Devlin staked the wooden crucifix into the ground behind the altar. “Okay we’re getting close guys,” Judy whisper-shouted to the squirming kids. “We’re getting ready for the quiet time.”

Mass began. The microphone popped on and off as Father Devlin led the opening prayer, but the little congregation still knew when to respond with “Christ have mercy.” As Father Devlin read from Ezekiel and Romans, an irreverent ice cream truck bleeped out a shrill melody from a block away. This was countered with an upbeat ‘Alleluia,’ and the bassist friar rocked out with a subtle head-bang.

Cackling erupted from behind a fence across Clearfield Street. A group of young men were coming in and out of a rowhome and adjacent lot, openly exchanging cash and small packages on the sidewalk. Two slick black cars with tinted windows were parked outside. An old man in worn clothes shuffled past them, blasting “Ahora Dice” from a portable stereo.

When the rap faded, Father Devlin read from the Gospel of Matthew.

“… if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Father Murphy began the homily by referencing an Inquirer article by Mike Newall, who had covered opioids in Kensington all summer. There was a murmur of approval at the mention of St. Mike, who had become more involved in the community than any other reporter. Mike’s brother John died of a heroin overdose in 1999. Father Murphy relayed the “detox, rehab, soft love, hard love” that Mike’s parents had tried to pour into their oldest son. As he described the familiar, draining life of an addict’s family, the grandmothers and the abuelas seemed to age a few years. A middle-aged couple in matching tan polos stood, his hands on her shoulders, staring vacantly into the trees behind Father Murphy’s head.

“Mike saw his brother not as an addict but as a person, a brother. That, and the love his parents showed– that sums up completely the readings for today.”

Neighborhood kids were shrieking on the playground now, climbing the chain link fence that surrounded the rear of the library. Behind them, the rowhomes on E street had their doors wide open, and matronly figures leaned on doorposts to watch their wards on the jungle gym while the mass in front of them reached the height of its homily.

“If we’re going to love like Jesus, sometimes love is going to have to be really practical and concrete and tough. But it’s always with love, and it’s always with a purpose of bringing a brother or sister back to the fullness of love.” The ice cream truck returned and accompanied Father Murphy with the Mister Softee Jingle. “This is Recovery Awareness Month,” he concluded. “We’re here because we have hope.”

The musicians sang a peaceful communion song in English and Spanish. Father Murphy prayed over the bread and the wine, lifting them up toward the police trailer as if invoking a saint inside. Meanwhile, ten teenagers from the park descended on the unmanned pretzel table behind the congregation. At some point during the homily, a photographer from the Inquirer had arrived and was now aggressively snapping close-ups of congregants receiving the holy sacrament.

The kids sitting with Judy had gotten bored and squirmed away. Five of them were chucking extra water bottles at the front of the library building, trying to balance them on top of the doorframe. The priests’ words were punctuated by the sound of bottles exploding on the brick terrace. “The body of Christ.” Ksshh.

Father Murphy invited a man forward to speak. His navy suit jacket and pristine silver wristwatch made him stand out among the hoodies and cargo pants of McPherson Square. He was Bernie Parent, a Flyers retiree, NHL Hall of Famer, and longtime recovering alcoholic. The audience instinctively clapped and whooped at the mention of a Philly sports team despite the heavy topic at hand.

Bernie called alcohol “the little bastard on my shoulder” with a glance at Father Murphy. It had driven him from the NHL Championships to rock bottom. He impressed on his listeners that “it takes a team to recover” and thanked them for being that team for the addict they love. Then, what everyone was waiting for: “It’s been 37 years.” The crowd erupted with applause.

As the priests came forward to conclude the mass, a shirtless man appeared at the park edge. He had a joint tucked behind each ear, and dozens of needle-welts in each arm. He stumbled past without accepting a pretzel or a prayer.

“The Lord be with you, go in peace.”