Aretha, Francis, and Sinatra, on the wall at Dirty Frank's

An Unexpected Welcome

They’ve added Pope Francis to the wall at Dirty Frank’s.

If you’re not from Philadelphia, that sentence might make no sense to you. In fact, it might not make sense even if you are, because Dirty Frank’s keeps a low profile. There’s no sign to mark their location at 13th and Pine in Philadelphia; you simply look for the two walls painted with every manner of person named Frank.

The "other Francis" and Frankenstein's monster, on the wall at Dirty Frank's.

The “other Francis” and Frankenstein’s monster, on the wall at Dirty Frank’s.

Frank Sinatra. Frank Zappa. Franklin Roosevelt. Aretha Franklin. Frankenstein. Francis of Assisi. And, now, Pope Francis. He’s smiling in his depiction, wearing his papal mitre. He’s directly below 1980s Phillies pitcher Frank “Tug” McGraw.

It’s not the type of place you might expect to find enthusiasts of the Bishop of Rome. It’s gritty, unassuming, a bit rough around the edges (full disclosure: Dirty Frank’s was my local back in 1999, when I lived around the corner). There’s no lock on the door to the bathroom, which is unisex. You can’t see in from the outside–what windows the place has are high and covered up.

Patrons there on Saturday night, in between glances at a large projection screen on which Aretha Franklin was performing for the pope, describe the place the same way I would have described it in 1999, when the crowd seemed to be art students from a nearby university, journalists, and people who didn’t like journalists who ask too many questions. “Quirky.” “Full of old-timers.” “Neighborhood institution.” “Good beer.” While the place is welcoming enough, I am told “that [Archbishop Chaput] wouldn’t have been popular here during the gay marriage debates.” The current drink special is a kamikaze shot and a pony of Rolling Rock.

Talk to the patrons on a night like this, though, and you’ll find a curious thing. They’re more or less Pope Francis fans. Julie Donofrio, 34, a city planner wearing two pope buttons, says she’s “happy to have him. I was raised Catholic, and while I don’t really practice, it’s very exciting still to have a pope that is so forward-thinking on a lot of the issues. He’s expanding the envelope on the whole Catholic thing, so that it includes environmentalism and includes social justice as important.”

“It’s not just about sex for him,” concurs Mason Austin, 33, also a city planner. “He’s taking the church in a good direction, not focusing on the things that, to be honest, get in the way of what Jesus really wanted the church to focus on.” While not a Catholic himself, Austin professes “admiration for the 1960s Catholics, the generation that took the Catholic church in a social activist direction,” and associates Pope Francis with that moment in the life of the church.

These conversations are happening at high volume, because the place is roaring with noise. The crowd—including a man dressed as a revolutionary war soldier—is enjoying the (frankly terrible) music concert happening for the pope on the Parkway. The teacher in me is starting to get nervous that they’re just telling me what I want to hear. These are the folks who stayed in town for the pope, after all, when plenty of other Philadelphians fled to the Poconos or “down the Shore” to the beaches of New Jersey.

Watching Francis at Dirty Frank's

Watching Francis at Dirty Frank’s

I am disabused of that notion by Trina Meiser, 39 and a historian, who shuts me down when I ask if she knows so much about Catholicism because she is or was a Catholic. “No,” she shoots back, “it’s because I am an educated person.” She then asks me a second time who exactly I am and what exactly this is for. Surprisingly, however, she turns out to be Francis’ biggest enthusiast. “There has been a focus on income inequality. He’s publicly rejected materialism. He’s against exploitation of the environment. He’s spoken out against exclusion, and against the exclusion in the Catholic Church that is contrary to the very idea of being a Catholic—a universal—church. He’s about inclusion. He’s about forgiveness. He’s about compassion.”

“Damn, Trina,” Donofrio interjects. “You really like this guy.”

“That year of mercy he’s doing?” Meiser continues, “How about we make that a lifetime of mercy?”