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NORRISTOWN — The job was monumental, and the cost for repairs reflected the major work needed to be done. So, in early 2021, when Ray Tiedemann Jr. presented the cost estimate to restore the ceiling of St. Patrick Church in Norristown to then pastor the Rev. Gus Puleo, the contractor was pretty sure he knew how this scenario would play out.
Tiedemann, owner and president of John Tiedemann Inc., a New Jersey-based company that specializes in historic plaster conservation, had been in this situation before. Now, he was almost certain this visit to St. Pat’s would play out like most of the others – and end with a church closing.
But at that time, Tiedemann didn’t yet experience the heart and soul of St. Patrick Church, and couldn’t imagine what could be accomplished by the driving forces of the parish – the pastor and the parishioners.
“What was extraordinary is that they had a serious plaster problem that was going to cost a lot of money to fix,” Tiedemann said. “Money the church didn’t have. But (the people of St. Pat’s) were able to raise the money to get the work done pretty quickly and to save the church. That was extraordinary.
“Normally, you have a church like that and they have an issue of that level, they end up closing the church. But they were able to pull together and save the building,” Tiedemann added. “That was a big deal.”
Pews were being replaced in the church. (Times Herald Photo)
Plaster from this corner of the ceiling began falling in early 2021. (Times Herald Photo)
The restored and repainted plaster work of St. Patrick Church. (Times Herald Photo) (Times Herald Photo)
Restoration of the church was complete in about a year. (Times Herald Photo)
The intricate details of the plaster were restored and repainted. (Times Herald Photo)
The restored and repainted ceiling of St. Patrick Church. (Times Herald Photo)
This sign was placed in the entrance to the parish hall, where masses were held once the church was closed for safety reasons. The candle is lit because the goal was reached. (Times Herald photo)
St. Patrick Church has been serving the Norristown community since 1835. (Times Herald Photo)
Times herald File Photo
Rev. Gus Puleo, former pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Norristown
Photo courtesy of Jean Spera
The beauty of Easter was on display at St. Patrick's Church in this file photo from 2019.
In 2018, prior to the pandemic, St. Patrick's Church in Norristown celebrated Our Lady of Guadelupe's feast day with dances, singers and a procession of decorated cars and trucks.
St. Patrick Church's altar decorated for Christmas. (Times Herald File Photo)
A big deal, for sure. But for Puleo, there was never a question about the future of St. Patrick Church.
“(Ray Tiedemann) said this was a meeting he didn’t like because this is when they decide to close the church,” Puleo said. “I said I am not going to be the one to close this church. I am a priest to bring God to people not to close a church.
“In a way it was a real gut-punch, but it also motivated me into thinking that we at least had to try,” Puleo said. “I wasn’t going to let it (church closing) happen without even trying.”
With that determination driving him, Puleo put together a fundraising committee that began brainstorming ideas during the first meetings. Faced with the daunting task of raising $1.6 million, efforts to save the church took off in earnest in August of 2021. Those first few meetings the committee came up with a campaign project name, “Preserving St. Patrick Church for the Future.” A game plan was formed; grant applications were submitted; a YouTube video detailing the church’s need for financial assistance was produced; fundraisers were held. All the work was done by volunteers.
Keys to reaching the goal were contributions by The Genuardi Family Foundation as well as the Catholic Foundation, and support from Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez. Puleo also stressed that former parishioners, alumni of St. Patrick School and friends of the parish were instrumental in supporting the fundraising effort. Puleo was also touched by the generosity of fellow priests, such as Monsignor John Marine, who spearheaded several fundraising drives; the Rev. Christopher Redcay of St. Patrick Church in Malvern; and the Rev. Tadeusz Gorka, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Royersford, and his parishioners – who donated the proceeds from their second collection one weekend.
While those donations made a great impression on Puleo, the parishioners, he said, were the true inspiration. Puleo noted that the parish community is proud of its diversity and richness of culture. And during this difficult time, that diversity proved to be a unifying factor – a heartbeat that grew stronger with the goal of preserving St. Patrick Church.
“The parishioners have such a strong love of their church that they wouldn’t let it close,” Puleo said. “They were doing everything possible – raffles, selling homemade food, all kinds of fundraising and reaching out to the community for donations. And it was both the English and Spanish communities. It was everybody. They showed ownership of their church. They saved the church.”
Committee member Denise Lewis said a Bible passage (Mark 12: 43-44) came to mind when considering the steady stream of support the church received.
“With over 400 individual donors, we had a lot of ‘small contributor’ support, like the widow in the Bible story. Many gave regularly and some anonymously. We are grateful to all who supported our mission and are all part of its success.”
Parishioner Gloria Solorzano, who also serves on the fundraising committee, said the Hispanic community of St. Patrick Church has found a home with the parish, and that alone was motivation.
“We did all we could to achieve our goal as fast as we could and the community’s efforts was full of heart,” Solorzano said. “Achieving our goal made us feel accomplished. We wanted to give back, to be a part of the solution. Both communities came together as one to raise funds for Saint Pat’s; one community working towards one goal.”
Less than a year after “Preserving St. Patrick Church for the Future” kicked off, it was determined the money needed to start the repairs to the ceiling was in hand, and the church was well on its way to raising the full $1.6 million restoration cost. Ironically, Puleo said he was informed by experts conducting feasibility studies that the parish was not capable of raising the money – that it would take the parish four years to raise just $300,000.
Not long after the goal was reached, Puleo accepted a full-time teaching position at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where he serves as director of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program and the Spanish Department and also teaches English and Spanish. Stepping into his shoes as pastor was the Rev. Manuel Flores. For sure the new pastor was placed into a less than ideal situation. But Flores accepted the challenges posed by his new assignment with enthusiasm and determination – trying to reflect, he said, his new parishioners.
“I saw that even after nearly two years of celebrating mass in the parish hall, the parishioners of St. Patrick have persevered in coming daily to support and adore in their home parish. I am honored to have such parishioners in St. Patrick’s,” Flores said.
Parishioners, Solorzano said, who embrace cultural differences and stand stronger for it.
“The phrase ‘Unidad hace la fuerza’ comes to mind,” Solorzano said. “Which literally translates to ‘strength found in unity,’ something that we found here at St. Pat’s through our efforts.”
St. Patrick Church will celebrate its reopening Nov. 10, with a bilingual mass at 6 p.m. The public is invited to experience this joyful celebration – to experience just what the heart and soul can accomplish when graced by faith.
Mary Treisbach, a lifelong parishioner and member of the fundraising committee, said the mass on Nov. 10 is the result of a parish community forged in faith and devotion.
“Like many parishes, the pandemic hit us hard, creating a feeling of separation from one another,” Treisbach said. “Closing the church building was another blow. In a strange way, the fundraising effort renewed a sense of the St. Patrick community, of common purpose, of working together against seemingly insurmountable odds for a common goal. Our story is one of resilience, and it resonated – not just with parishioners, but with many in the greater Norristown area who decided to be a part of preserving St. Patrick Church for the future. ”
The future of St. Patrick Church in now in the capable hands of Flores, who understands and appreciates the faithful community he’s inherited.
“It’s given me hope for the future of St. Patrick’s,” Flores said. “St. Patrick’s will continue to grow and flourish. I will continue to minister as best as I can, honoring the legacy that the previous pastor Fr. Gus Puleo left. In particular I will put a good portion of my attention to the youth of the parish. They are the future of the Church and I want to bring the love of Christ to them.”
As for Puleo, he’ll be on the altar with Flores celebrating the mass. And it will be that moment, he said, that the goal that’s been driving him for the last two years, will be realized.
“I will be completely convinced on November 10, when we’re in the pews and on the altar.”
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