In anticipation of the feast of St. Anthony, Jud Weiksnar, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden, N.J., reflected on the way that the friars at St. Anthony see their parish’s patron saint at work in their community, one of the most violent and impoverished in America.
Did you know that St. Anthony is the patron saint of American Indians, animals, barrenness, Brazil, elderly people, faith in the Blessed Sacrament, fishermen, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, harvest, horses, lost articles, lower animals, mail, mariners, oppressed people, poor people, Portugal, pregnant women, seekers of lost articles, shipwrecks, starvation, sterility, swineherds, Tigua Indians, travel hostesses, travelers, and watermen? At St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden, we figure at least a few of those categories apply to us!
As we gear up for the Feast of St. Anthony on June 13, and the Parish Fiesta that we will hold on June 15, it’s a good time to reflect on what St. Anthony means to us.
Preaching to the Fish
An Italian movie was made about St. Anthony in 2005, the year I was assigned to Camden, and I show the DVD to the students in the parish school every year. We watch several of the scenes, and the ones that are invariable the favorites of the students are those where St. Anthony preaches to the fish, and where he resuscitates a girl who had drowned. I suppose it makes sense that those scenes would resonate with children who grow up in Camden, the poorest and most violent city in the United States.
The depiction of St. Anthony preaching to the fish — after unsuccessfully trying to get the attention of his fellow human beings — illustrates how out of frustration we can discover God’s grace acting in unexpected ways. At the dinner table with my brother friars Hugh Macsherry, OFM, Karl Koenig, OFM, and Juan Turcios, OFM, here at St. Anthony’s, we often reflect on the challenging dimensions of our ministry. Camden is reminiscent of what we would normally think of as “mission territory” vis-a-vis a typical American neighborhood. When things that pass for “best practices” in other places don’t have the same results, we often turn to Plan B, and preach to the fish. It’s a great reminder to the friars that it’s God who is in control, not us. While unexpected graces still tend to surprise us friars, our parishioners and students take it as normal. It’s the water they swim in.
The scene of the young girl who had drowned, and came back to life after St. Anthony’s intense prayer, also hits home here in Camden. In many ways, this city has drowned. In terms of employment opportunities, public safety, infrastructure, and schools — what experts have identified as areas that need to work well in order to have a healthy city — Camden is dead in the water. Yet it must be through the intercession of St. Anthony that small miracles have happened in and around our parish.
Growth and Blessings
It is a tremendous blessing to be involved with parishioners and students who have turned an abandoned lot into a fertile community garden; who have transformed a neighborhood park from a depressing embarrassment into a neighborhood asset; and who have helped a playground and rain garden emerge where an abandoned house once stood. Cucumbers grow where crack vials used to be strewn. Colorful murals have replaced graffiti. Kindergartners play where delinquents used to squat. And flowers bloom where poison ivy used to spread. As St. Anthony prayed for new life for a lifeless girl, St. Anthony’s has tried to do the same for a neighborhood that, if not lifeless, was nearing the tipping point for collapse and chaos.
We are so blessed to be in a parish named for, and under the protection of, St. Anthony of Padua. Though our finance council might suggest we change our name to St. Pantaleon, since he’s the patron saint of lottery tickets, we can’t think of a more appropriate patron for our beloved parish and city. If you are near the Camden/Philadelphia area on June 15, join us for Mass, delicious food, bingo, a dunk tank, dominoes, and music!
Happy Feast of St. Anthony!
— Fr Jud, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden, N.J.