‘Grace Ferry’ for Grays Ferry: Priest Ministers to Drug-Ravaged Philly Neighborhood

Father Doug McKay founded the Our House recovery home in 1997, two years after his own brother died in a nearby crack house.

Father Doug McKay talks with a Grays Ferry resident in front of the Matt Talbot House. Below, a Mass is held at Our House Ministries in Philadelphia.
Father Doug McKay talks with a Grays Ferry resident in front of the Matt Talbot House. Below, a Mass is held at Our House Ministries in Philadelphia. (photo: Brian O'Neel)

PHILADELPHIA — As demonstrated by government reports and news stories in recent years, heroin’s web has ensnared the Northeast and is set to spread its threads across the rest of the nation. If that happens, Philadelphia will be an anchor by which that web grows.

One area devastated by the narcotic is the city’s Grays Ferry section, a tightknit blue-collar neighborhood filled with good people but also one beset by addiction. Very few families here don’t have someone who’s abusing, in recovery, or dead.

Sirens pierce the air at all hours. Rarely, however, does their noise come from police cars. Instead, it comes from ambulances and paramedics going to rescue yet another overdosed junkie.

Dealers drive by early in the morning and toss coded packets of “smack” onto street corners.

The devastation this has wrought on this former bastion of Catholicism is palpable. The area once supported three parishes, each within easy walking distance of one another. Now, only St. Gabriel Church survives, and it struggles to hold on. Folks still cross themselves as they walk past its doors each day, but you don’t see those people in Sunday Mass.

This especially goes for people such as the single mother who deals from her house and the young man who deals from the corner opposite the church. But both still cross themselves whenever they walk by.

Into the breach has stepped a local priest, Father Doug McKay, who found his vocation in a local bar. Although various assignments following his ordination took him elsewhere, Father McKay, 65, never really left Grays Ferry.

He regularly returned to the neighborhood, visiting the bars. Instead of ordering a pint, though, he distributed Miraculous Medals and scapulars.

‘I See the Suffering Jesus in Them’

After his brother’s 1995 death in a nearby crack house, he began spending even more time in what he calls “Grace Ferry,” looking to help others avoid his sibling’s fate.

“What [do] they say when you pick up hard drugs? They had the number at 5% that would get off and stay off,” said Father McKay. “You got a better chance of beating cancer than staying off of drugs. So coming down here, that’s how I saw it, as a sickness — and in most cases, it’s a terminal sickness. You don’t leave somebody dying from cancer. I wouldn’t leave them [here suffering from drugs], because I know they’re dying. They’re the walking dead, but I see the suffering Jesus in them.”

So in 1997, he started Our House Ministries (OHM), a recovery house with a difference. While the archdiocese has supported the initiative by permitting Father McKay to dedicate himself full time to its operations, the project has always been funded independently through donations.

OHM doesn’t just give men a place to stay while they attempt to rebuild their lives. It gives them a moral and spiritual foundation from which to build.

To that end, residents must attend Sunday Mass and the meetings of Calix, a 70-year-old Catholic organization for those in 12-step programs. Unlike every other Calix chapter in the world, which meets monthly, the Grays Ferry’s chapter meets weekly, drawing men and women from all over the region. Together, they help those in recovery “substitute the cup that stupefies for the cup that sanctifies.”

OHM “provides a setting that no other Calix unit in the world has,” said Ken Johnston, former Calix national president and current OHM board chairman.

Since its founding almost 20 years ago, OHM has helped more than 1,000 people. In the process, it has grown from one house to five interconnected row houses, one of which Father McKay occupies. It and insurance are the only compensation he receives. He offers daily Mass and adoration, and while encouraged to do so, the men aren’t required to attend. Most, however, do.

The men must also receive spiritual direction, and they are urged to develop a devotion to Venerable Matt Talbot, the Irish alcoholic whose beatification cause is under way.

“We give dignity, love and compassion,” said house manager Hugh McCarron, adding that life here “mostly revolves around the sacraments.”

The reason is simple: This allows residents to “start to find hope. You let God in your life, it doesn’t get easier — it gets more bearable, easier to live with. You don’t have to run and get a drink.”


Jingles’ Story

Resident John “Jingles” McLaughlin agrees.

The 55-year-old started abusing drugs at age 20, although he didn’t become a heroin addict until age 45. The former union journeyman estimates he has easily spent $800,000 on drugs. He now suffers from Hepatitis C. He has tried to get sober for the last 10 years, but his longest stretch of sobriety was nine months, which was during his last stay with Our House Ministries. OHM asked him to leave after he admitted using. Father McKay recently gave him his third chance and allowed him to move back in.

“I’ve been through a lot of halfway houses,” said McLaughlin, “and this house gives me the most hope of staying sober. I stayed sober nine months. I ain’t never stayed sober nine months in my life.

“I thank God for this place. I would never make it without something like this. I’d be dead.”

Others have also found a safe haven for the soul.

Near his life’s end, former mobster Carl Ursino came to OHM because he had nowhere else to go. He, too, had Hepatitis C and was petrified of dying because of his sins. Father McKay visited him in the hospital and placed a crucifix on his chest. The fear left Carl, and for his remaining months on earth, he was a joyful missionary for Christ to all he encountered. 

Jingles may be another success story. During his recent hospitalization, McLaughlin received 30 OxyContin, a prescription-opioid pain medication that is commonly abused by drug addicts. Following his release, he found Father McKay and showed him the drugs.

“I said, ‘Look what they gave me … for pain.’ He goes, ‘Well, look at Our Lord on the cross and what he went through,’ and I ripped them up. And he said, ‘John, that’s growth [on] your part, because you would have never done that [before].’

“God ain’t gonna let you down,” Jingles concluded, “if you don’t let yourself down.”


Trusting Providence

Father McKay says OHM wants to serve women and families in distress, too. But the existing houses are older than St. Gabriel Church, which was founded in 1895, and they need constant repairs.

With few financial resources, he isn’t sure how any of this will happen, but, he said, “I have a ‘trust fund’ in the Bank of Divine Providence.

“It’s all according to God’s plans, really.”


Register correspondent Brian O’Neel writes from Philadelphia.