Frank Rizzo Sr.'s life honored

A Girard Estate parish paid tribute to a renowned 
public official on the 20th
 anniversary of his death. 

By Joseph Myers

Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Jul. 21, 2011

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Art enthusiasts and admirers of Frank Rizzo can inspect his image at Ninth and Montrose streets. The leader devoted the majority of his life to bettering the lives of those in his hometown.

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.

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Comments 1 - 5 of 5
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1. Anonymous said... on Jul 21, 2011 at 01:34PM

“rip mr mayor..”

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2. Joe C said... on Jul 21, 2011 at 06:36PM

“He would get hung unfortunately in this time n day.”

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3. Victor said... on Jul 22, 2011 at 03:53PM

“I know one thing her did promise if he became mayor again. He'd get the Parking Authority, take away their ticket books and give them brooms.”

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4. Dottie C. said... on Jul 24, 2011 at 10:26AM

“God how I miss this man. He was the best Mayor this City ever had. He was strictly a law and order man and that is what I respected the most about him. If only we had a Mayor like him today, but sadly I don't think that will ever happen due to the mentality of most of the voters in this City.Every time I shop on 9th St. and pass by that mural, I always say Hello Frank and I wave to him. I have photos of Frank when he was last campaigning here in Southwest Philly. It was a sad, sad day when we he died. May the Angels embrace you Frank.”

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5. Ed Mc said... on Jul 30, 2011 at 02:29PM

“I remember a few times when I had the chance to be in public with him, it would take an hour to walk one block because every person who came in contact with him wanted to shake his hand and relate a story about help that he offered them or a friend.”


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