A Girard Estate parish paid tribute to a renowned public official on the 20th anniversary of his death.
Frank Rizzo Sr. possessed a polarizing personality that led to the accumulation of ample allies and enemies.
The former dominated Saturday, as St. Monica Church, 1714 Ritner St., offered its Vigil Mass in honor of the 20th anniversary of the outspoken politician’s passing. Hundreds of parishioners and a few esteemed guests attended the gathering to laud Rizzo, a key figure in the church’s history.
Bells began to play 15 minutes before the 5 p.m. celebration to set a reverent tone. No pageantry marked the Liturgy of the Word, with Rev. Joseph Kelley saving a display of levity for his homily. The pastor discussed the Parable of the Weeds from the Gospel of St. Matthew as guidance against judging and for loving everyone. He segued into reflections on Rizzo, who grew up on the 2300 block of South Rosewood Street and who called the Girard Estate parish his for the first 17 of his 70 years. “Frank Rizzo was one of my favorite people,” Kelley said of the blunt figure who entered the Philadelphia Police Department in 1943, served as its commissioner from ’67 to ’71 and held the mayorship from ’72 to ’80.
With brother Joe Rizzo, the City’s fire commissioner from ’72 to ’84, in the front pew, the priest noted how delightful he found listening to Rizzo on his post-mayoral talk radio show.
“I recall his definition of a conservative as a liberal who was mugged the night before,” Kelley said to laughter. “He also responded to someone who wondered if the streets were safe by saying they were and that people were making them unsafe.”
Kelley’s analysis of the Gospel selection, in which Jesus Christ uses wheat and weeds as metaphors in his vow to separate good from evil, lends itself to a look at perceptions of Rizzo. Many cherish him as a saint, while others chide him as a bigot intent on angering African-Americans. The first view’s credibility receives a boost from his assisting the church in its recovery from a massive ’71 fire. The other circle takes a hit when one analyzes the fact, as Time did in a ’68 article, that Philadelphia’s police force contained a higher percentage of African-Americans than other cities’ units.
“He experienced backlash as an Italian, so he knew discrimination doesn’t get people far,” Jody Della Barba, his secretary during his radio days and ’87 and ’91 mayoral campaigns, said.
The resident of the 2500 block of South 18th Street joined with The Frank Rizzo Memorial Committee and The Frank Rizzo Lodge Order Sons of Italy in America to plan the Mass. After Kelley’s final blessing drew applause for its mention of Rizzo as a great contributor to the City, South Philadelphia and St. Monica, she and the attendees shared memories of the leader and estimations of the service.
“I enjoyed the sermon,” Joe Rizzo, up from Avalon, N.J., with Maryann Sullivan, his partner of nine years, said of Kelley’s delivery.
“It was an absolutely beautiful Mass,” Sullivan added.
Her beau received many handshakes and pats on the back from those eager to explain his and his brother’s roles in their lives. Republican mayoral candidate Karen Brown made the rite her third homage of the day, as she had ventured to a remembrance in front of a 10-foot high statue of Rizzo at Center City’s Municipal Services Building and a wreath laying at his grave in Montgomery County’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
“He was a wonderful man,” the resident of 10th and Mifflin streets, said. “I am hoping to fill his shoes.”
Having worked on his first campaign and citing a long relationship with his family, Rosemary Marino could not believe 20 years have elapsed since a heart attack felled Rizzo.
“It was such a blessing to have him. God was good to us,” the resident of 18th and Shunk streets said. “When you shook his hand, it would become smothered in his. God bless him a million days.”
A stalwart figure, Rizzo parlayed his time in law enforcement into two widely-documented terms as Philadelphia’s 93rd mayor. He had City Council place a Charter change question on the ballot to afford him a chance to extend his stay. Voters rejected the change, and Rizzo began positions as a security consultant with Philadelphia Gas Works and as a radio talk show host.
“Whatever position he held, he never minced words for political benefit,” Kelley said post-Mass.
The eighth-year head of St. Monica knew Rizzo indirectly but has enough knowledge of him to deem him someone who took great pride in being a South Philadelphian and an Italian.
“He was a good Catholic, too,” he added.
As proof of Rizzo’s religious identity, Kelley discussed his own high school education at Wyncote’s Bishop McDevitt, where Joanna Rizzo Mastronardo, the lone daughter of Rizzo and wife Carmella, was his homeroom teacher.
The late Frank Rizzo, who grew up on the 2300 block of South Rosewood Street, witnessed his share of crime while serving as police commissioner from 1967 to ’71 and mayor of Philadelphia from ’72 to ’80.
While critics argue the days of Mayor Frank Rizzo's reign over the city were among Philadelphia's darkest and diehard supporters maintain they were the best, they were nonetheless a golden age for any reporter covering City Hall. The former mayor was a veritable quote machine, seemingly willing to comment off-the-cuff on any question fired at him. Take these pearls, for example: Crime is running rampant and Philadelphia's murder rate is among the highest in the nation. Asked to comment, Hizzoner replied: "The streets are safe in Philadelphia. It's only the people who make them unsafe." Some say Philadelphia's budget woes can still be traced back to the bloated payrolls created during Rizzo's eight years. His personnel policy was to employ half of the city, which still endears his memory to many. Among his controversial hires was appointing his brother Joe to be the city's fire commissioner. Rizzo deflected any criticism thusly: "It's not nepotism. He's my brother." And there was Rizzo the philosopher, who explained the different ends of the political spectrum like so: "A conservative is a liberal who was mugged the night before." Beware feds in sheiks' clothing In 1978, the FBI created a front to catch crooked politicians in Washington, D.C. Among those...
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