Many Catholic parishes across the United States are being forced to close their schools, churches and community centers due to lack of enrollment and funding from their local dioceses. But in South Philadelphia 118-year-old parish has been saved from closure by two former students - twin brothers who have revitalized the church and school by embracing families of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
On a chilly morning, the schoolyard at St. Thomas Aquinas is bustling as children from 6 to 13 years old race around, chasing each other and playing jump rope before classes start.
To the average passerby, St. Thomas looks like any other Catholic school in South Philadelphia. But these children are quite different than the kids enrolled at the city's other Catholic schools. Of the 560 children attending St. Thomas Aquinas, 60 percent are not Catholic and a third are "English Speakers of Other Languages" or ESOL students.
In 1988, Father Arthur Taraborelli petitioned the Philadelphia Archdiocese to be transferred back here, to the parish where he grew up. Upon arrival, "Pastor" Taraborelli looked at the neighborhood's changing population and realized that in order to save his school and church he needed to do something radical.
"As the Catholics moved out, we reached out to non-Catholics providing a good education that would focus on values, respect and safety," he said. "We don't proselytize. We don't do any of that. The only thing we provide is a good safe environment and education."
For help, Pastor Taraborelli called upon his twin brother, Armand, who had been a teacher and school administrator in New Jersey for 28 years.
"So what I decided to do is kind of use the strategies I learned in the public school where we were very inclusive," said Armand Taraborelli. "I would open to any student whether it be white, black, red, pink, any kind of learning disability. That we do make sure that we do accommodate them when they do come in."
St. Thomas provides a wide array of services that other schools don't offer. Principal Armand Taraborelli says this is what makes St. Thomas attractive to its ethnically diverse community.
"I think offering other programs like the free lunch program we are offering them, the before-care and after-care," he said. "This has helped the parents a lot because they are looking for schools that have to provide the aftercare and before-care."
Another unique aspect of St. Thomas Aquinas parish is that the school has a radically diverse student body, from all over the world.
The teaching staff also has an international flavor. Erlinda Klapano is Filipino and has been teaching English, math and religion at St. Thomas for 12 years. She's watched the school's enrollment change from primarily Italian-American, African-American and Latino to what it is today, and says the growth in diversity has been good for the students.
"This time it is really multi-ethnic," said Erlinda Klapano. "It is definitely. And that is a good environment for them so they can get along and they are very interested."
While ethnic diversity is celebrated at St. Thomas, the language barriers can prove challenging. To provide English language support to the thirty-three percent of students who speak little or no English, St. Thomas offers an ESOL program in conjunction with the Philadelphia School District.
St. Thomas Aquinas relies on a Total English Immersion model. With this approach, students start learning - in English - from their first day of class. But that doesn't mean they understand anything that ESOL teacher Anna Dugdale is saying. At least, not at first.
"I am teaching them survival skills from the most basic sight vocabulary," she said. "What are the things in the classroom so they know how to get the supplies that they need, they know how to ask for something: 'this is the cassette player, this is the chalkboard, please take your notebook out.' Something so basic, but not only is it especially for Vietnamese coming to a new language, it's also a different alphabet so their really having to learn a new sound symbol correspondence, depending what the level of literacy is for the child in their first language that very much influences how ready they are to pick up English."
Miss Dugdale relies on songs as a teaching device. Music plays softly in the background during her advanced classes.
"I like to write and music to me just helps me so I do that more as an ambience," said Anna Dugdale. "But also, in terms of learning English, we do a lot of singing. We do a lot of chanting because there is so much about the rhythm of language which helps them remember the words, remember the phrases, remember how to structure a sentence, so, I use music in different ways."
Another way the students demonstrate their musical English skills is to sing a song celebrating something every schoolchild loves, no matter where they were born.
Finally, St. Thomas Aquinas sets itself apart from other Catholic churches in the variety of Sunday masses offered in languages other than English. Masses are said in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Indonesian.
Father Yulianus Asanto Adi leads the Indonesian services on Sunday and does other tasks the rest of the week.
"I administer the community life," he said. "How to empower them. I also formed the Indonesian Catholic community for the structure of a committee, something like that. Beside the regular job, like celebrating mass, the catechism for adults, celebrating baptism and also marriage."
St. Thomas Aquinas, says Pastor Arthur Taraborelli, is a family. He says that as families from other cultures leave his parish in Philadelphia and settle elsewhere, they can do so with a sense of self-worth and belonging.