Memorial mass honors church destroyed by fire in Northeast Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- "I think that, out of the ashes, you can always have rebirth," said Megan Broderick. "At St. Leo's, even though the building isn't there, the church community is still there. And we are going to stand strong and be proud."

Broderick, a parishioner of St. Leo Roman Catholic Church since birth, watched with her own eyes as the Northeast Philadelphia landmark was scorched by flames last month.

The blaze, considered by officials to have been arson, marked the end of a 137-year-long legacy. Neighbors gathered to watch the demolition, which took place where they once stood to celebrate sacraments and weddings. Still, it could not break the spirit that St. Leo left behind.

"Believe it or not that the fire was a catastrophe, but it brought everybody back together again," said John Quirk, a 50-year resident of Tacony. "And you can see how much this church means to everybody here."

The Quirks were one of many generations-old families that attended a celebration this morning to memorialize the historic church. Archbishop Nelson Pérez presided over a mass that reminded folks how the church extends beyond its physical building.

The archdiocese's Director of the Office for Divine Worship, Father Dennis Gill, echoed this sentiment.

"The church is present in all of us who gather to celebrate mass, hear the word of God, receive the body and blood of the Lord, and are faithful to Jesus," he said.

In 2013, St. Leo's parish merged with Our Lady of Consolation just a few blocks down the road. Locals could still worship inside the original venue until 2019, the same year it earned a spot on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Just one month before the fire, the building was purchased by a developer. Locals have been communicating with him about salvaging the space or potentially creating a memorial in the park out of the rubble.

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Since 1884, St. Joseph's Church has been a cornerstone of the Sea Isle Community. Thanks to parishioners, it will be preserved for years to come.

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