A version of this post was published in partnership with PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods.com, a project of Temple University’s journalism program.
The Assumption of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church is the only Russian Orthodox Church in South Philadelphia. The parish held a well-attended centennial celebration in October.
“My grandmother and grandfather mortgaged their home to help build this church,” said Catherine Kavalkovich. “Many of the founding members did.”
Carpatho Russians from Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia founded the church in 1913 at 2800 Snyder Ave. in Grays Ferry. Some descendants of the original parishioners attend the church to this day. When Catherine was a young girl there were 350 members, but as families moved out of the city, church numbers dwindled to fewer than 30.
This small congregation is held together by the dedication of its parishioners. The group gained momentum five years ago when Father Matthew Cantrell relocated to Philadelphia to join the parish. Before his arrival, the church was slated for closure by the diocese. The young priest found inspiration in the determination of the parishioners. The spiritual and financial need he witnessed in Grays Ferry shaped his community church philosophy.
“The church belongs to this neighborhood,” said Cantrell. “One of my goals as pastor of this parish is to open up the doors to the community.”
Cantrell frequently walks around Grays Ferry knocking on doors, saying hello and asking community members if they need anything. Other outreach efforts include church-sponsored food and clothing drives, and parishioners deliver free turkeys to those in need at Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Last summer the parish cleaned out and weeded an underutilized plot behind the church. Churchgoers installed benches and hosted hot dog cookouts open to the community. This proved so popular that a community vegetable garden is planned for this spring.
“I would like to give the children a place to garden and grow some of their own vegetables,” said Cantrell. “I certainly welcome any volunteers.”
The church plans a simple garden that contributes to the beauty of the neighborhood and gives residents something to create together. Cantrell said they had planned to start digging after the last frost. To volunteer contact Father Matthew Cantrell.