By Pete Kennedy
“When I was growing up, we thought the whole world was Italian Catholic, because that’s all we saw,” said Rev. Nick Martorano, O.S.A.
An Augustinian priest, Martorano has spent 33 years as pastor at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in South Philadelphia. He grew up in the same neighborhood and was baptized at the church where he now presides. In fact, he has received all his sacraments at St. Nicholas, and he has seen the parish change significantly since he was a boy.
“When I was 10 or 15, half the people spoke Italian,” he said. “It was just a whole different experience. The hucksters would come around selling fruits and things. Life was different. It was a little Italy, Italy come alive, Naples in Philadelphia.”
Vestiges of that community remain. The church still celebrates an Italian Mass every Sunday at 8 p.m. and hosts a huge Italian festival each fall.
“We try to hold on to that, because we are an Italian national parish. It’s important for us—and for me, in particular,” Martorano said. “Our motto is ‘Faith, Family and Tradition.’ We live it. We believe it. It’s not just words.”
Rev. Martorano, 66, recognizes that the demographics within his corner of Philadelphia have changed because it is, as he puts it, one of the hottest neighborhoods in the country. Residents today mainly fall into three groups, he said: the established Italian community, young hipsters, and immigrants, mostly Asian and Hispanic.
St. Nicholas is ramping up its evangelization program to keep its pews filled, he said, hoping to reawaken the faith in lapsed Catholics and invite new parishioners to join. Many in the former group call upon the parish when they need their children baptized or some kind of paperwork.
“We try to be very welcoming and encouraging. Hopefully, that could make them feel that they’re still a part of the church, a part of the community,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s not a huge response.”
Both Rev. Martorano’s history in the neighborhood and his devotion to the work of his church make him an ideal ambassador for it. The Greater Philadelphia Chapter of UNICO, an Italian-American service organization, named Rev. Martorano Humanitarian of the Year in May.
His days are filled with parish business, ministering to the sick, overseeing operations at St. Anthony of Padua Regional Catholic School, and administering sacraments to people at all stages of life. He and his staff receive the stream of people coming to the church’s door seeking financial help or food. St. Nicholas recently partnered with the neighboring parish, Annunciation B.V.M., where Rev. Martorano now also serves as pastor. He is also on the board of the Tolentine Community Center, the Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor, and various other committees.
When he was very young, Martorano and his parents, brother and sister shared a row home with his uncle, aunts and grandmother — a precursor to the communal living he’d later enjoy as an Augustinian priest. After graduating from South Philadelphia High School in 1967, he attended the Community College of Philadelphia, studying business. He transferred to then La Salle College, graduating magna cum laude in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing.
He had an opportunity to become an assistant buyer for the Center City Strawbridge & Clothier, where he’d worked since high school. He decided, instead, to teach at St. Nicholas of Tolentine School — and that was when he became familiar with the Augustinians.
He entered the novitiate at New Hamburg, N.Y., in 1972 and professed his simple vows in 1973. He then spent three years studying at Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C. He was ordained a deacon in 1976 and was assigned to St. Augustine Prep School in Richland, N.J., and Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Vineland, both ministries that were originally formed to serve the needs of new Italian immigrants. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1977.
What was initially a three-month stint at St. Nicholas Parish has now passed three decades serving the community in which he grew up.
Rev. Martorano has difficulty walking through the city because people constantly stop him to talk. It slows his exercise, but he knows it’s an important part of his vocation to be among the people.
“The Holy Father spoke about how the priest should have the smell of the sheep,” he said. “So here we are.”