Father Frank presides over his flock at Spanish speaking St. Rocco Church05/03/2021 07:03PM ● By Steven Hoffman
Monsignor Francis Depman, 65, of West Grove is the pastor at St. Rocco Catholic Church on Sunny Dell Road along Route 41 in New Garden Township. He has presided there since the church was built in 2011, having moved to the new position from the one he had held as the regional priest to the Hispanic community out of Mision Santa Maria in Avondale. He is widely admired and is known to all as Father Frank.
Question: Tell us about your life and how you decided to enter the priesthood.
Father Frank: I was born and spent my early childhood in the Rhawnhurst section of Northeast Philadelphia. I went to the Rhawnhurst Elementary School through sixth grade and then to Catholic School in Philadelphia and Jenkintown, then Bishop McDevitt High School in Cheltenham. I went to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
When I was in eighth grade, the missionary priest came around and during the summer would take us out to the U. S. missions to have that experience. I thought I wanted to be a missionary, but they did away with that missionary college seminary while I was in high school, so I went to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
Question: What are the origins of St. Rocco Catholic Church?
Father Frank: I was in the old mission with Sister Jane – we all worked out there. Back in 2006, there was a five-part article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the Catholic Church. One article was about Mother Theresa, and another one was about our mission [in Avondale]. A reporter came out, rode on the bus and made a video.
They did that article, and Rocco Abessinio read the article.
[Benefactor Abessinio is the Founder and CEO of Applied Bank, a personal and commercial bank headquartered in Wilmington. He has also endowed other institutions such as Salesianum High School and Nemours Children’s Hospital in Delaware.]
He called me up and said, “It looks like you need a church, and I’ve always had a dream to build a church to my patron saint, St. Rocco. Maybe we can work to achieve our dreams.”
Rocco had been out to a mission church in California -- San Juan in Capistrano. He said, “I want that church to look like that.”
He wanted that Spanish architecture.
When we got permission on the name, we wondered how we could tell people we changed name from Santa Maria to St. Rocco. Someone in the parish said, “One of the oldest churches in Guanajuato [where many in the Chester County Mexican population are from] is St. Rocco, so people will be familiar with the name.
I gave my camera to a social worker who was going to Capistrano so she could take pictures of that church in California, for a model for the appearance.
We wanted to build a large church inexpensively like a box rather than a more elaborate round base. It came in less than the original estimated cost, so he had money for a parking lot, the glass wall and the retable.
[The retable is the wall behind the altar with pictures and a statue of St. Rocco and the dog that saved him when he was exiled and sick).
Question: How does St. Rocco operate?
Father Frank: St. Rocco is technically called a “national” church. We serve a special population that includes the Spanish-speaking population. It’s territorial in southern Chester County and serves the areas of St. Pat’s, St. Gabriel’s, Assumption, Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Consolation.
The official data states 31,000 people, but our list is 15,000 members and 4,500 families.
I am friends with and work with all the priests in the area—in fact, we had dinner together last night.
Question: You seem driven by the energy you derive from your position. You do everything: drive the bus, direct traffic for Guadalupe, clean up after events, preside at funerals, help individuals. Talk about your affection for your job and your flock.
Father Frank: I am enthusiastic, but it’s also financial reality. We don’t have the resources that other churches have. We can’t afford a maintenance person, so I do it, and we pick up the kids for CCD. We don’t charge for funerals here, but we have the facilities, Masses and the parking.
When families want to return the bodies of the deceased to Mexico and they have financial difficulties, the family takes up a collection at each Mass. It’s a family Mexican tradition. They put cans in the Mexican stores with pictures of the deceased. There’s a realization that the whole family steps in – a whole lot of people step in.
Also, many now have life insurance with their jobs to help pay, and they have patrinos.
With the patrinos, if they have a ceremony, say a wedding, one person pays for the dress, one for the band …whatever they need, it’s not just the parents. And you see that in everything that is done. It has all these patrinos. And you are expected to help out later when someone else needs assistance.
As for the characteristics of my Hispanic congregation, it’s my family seven days a week. It is a community of hard workers that employers want to hire.
The people in my church are also family-oriented with lots of children. At fiestas and the celebrations it’s not just kids or old people; the whole family comes. At the annual carnival, the whole family comes.
At some other places they just drop the kids off. Here the whole family comes. You see old people dancing and the young people are dancing, too.
I come from a family that’s very family-orientated. That’s the love that’s present there. At the Mass, it impresses you how many children are there.
Question: Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your operations?
Father Frank: It concerns me when we start taking down the ropes between pews moving to 75 percent capacity. We added a 2 p.m. Mass to increase the space taken up by the closed pews.
We had quinceaneras cancelled because the halls had too many restrictions.
Lately, with vaccinations, the folks are really gung-ho and have smiles on their faces.
Two months ago we had five funerals in one week, but not all of them were COVID. I think things are starting to come back.
The kids need to come back to school. The kids seem to be regressing. I have to read to the fourth graders to help them with every single word in the acts of contrition in CCD because they aren’t getting the practice, and their parents aren’t able to help them. The only place they are getting reading in English is at school.
For CCD [Confraternity of Christian Doctrine lessons in the faith for kids] they have three options: in person once a week (parents bring them); virtual and once on Saturday morning; totally virtual (that’s the hardest). We have to bring back the buses for transportation, but you lose your bus drivers because they get another job.
Question: Did you have to learn Spanish?
Father Frank: That’s a crazy story. I took German in high school, and as the teacher was watching me take the final in German II, he told me he would pass me if I promised not to take German 3 and took Spanish instead. So I was taking Spanish I, and as a junior in a class of sophomores I was the ace of the class. In seminary, they put me in Spanish. When word got out that I preferred Spanish they offered me a Puerto Rican house in the city with Spanish for three years.
Question: When Pope Francis came to town, how was that with your Hispanic congregation?
Father Frank: You know, when you are doing all those logistics, you only have time to get buses for the members and the other things -- business mangers contacting me get another bus. I didn’t actually go into Philadelphia for any of it. I was doing the video here live streaming so my people could see the Mass in Philadelphia.
I did go in for the Mass for the priests. We had to be at Villanova very early in the morning to park our cars in garages. The buses took forever going down the Schuylkill Expressway -- they had it all closed for the Pope visit.
At the service my friend just ahead of me in line sat next to the center aisle and got to shake hands with him. I was at the other end of the aisle at the far end. I ended up the next row back behind a pillar. I asked myself, “How did this happen?”
Question: How does the community see St. Rocco from outside?
Father Frank: This last Kennett graduation -- the one before -- they came to baccalaureate at St. Rocco. We had tents, a snack bar and the carnival was going on. I think the people were happy to participate. We made a good impression. You don’t see problems between communities here. The people think well of the Mexican community; it’s the backbone of the economy here and they are involved in so many parts of the community here. So many of our children have been able to go to college because the schools have done a great job educating the children. A lot of the youth, their parents worked very hard and didn’t come here with anything. But their kids went to college and have homes and cars – the American Dream.
You see in the community they’re successful, some with their own mushroom farms. You don’t see that much drugs and violence as you see in other places. They get a good education and know they can achieve good things for life, and they are doing it.
Question: How are you?
Father Frank: I am happy here, and I think the community is happy here. You don’t see the prejudice you see in other places. There are problems, yes. At the same time, there is hope. The greatest thing I have experienced is that there is hope.