Generations of altar servers have seen the “Pray for John Cooney and Family” inscription engraved on the side of the main altar. A few have wondered what it meant!
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when oysters were a “Nutritious, Inexpensive Luxury,” Irishman John Cooney was one of the largest oyster dealers in Philadelphia. Operating an oyster fishery on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Bay at Maurice River Cove, he sold his product at 116 Spruce Street. Business must have been good: he lived at 4814 Regent Street, but owned several properties downtown, and left legacies to Old St. Mary’s Church, as well as SFDS when he died in 1913.
Cooney’s business made the news a few times through the decades. In 1889, his oyster schooner Annie Cooney capsized. Two members of the crew, thought to be drowned, were later found alive. (Cooney is quoted as saying “I am confident…that Whisky capsized my vessel…You can’t ship a sober crew nowadays….”). In 1890, “a teamster for John Cooney…fell overboard into dock 17…” Grappling irons were used to fish him out after seven minutes underwater. We are told that “after a marvelous experience on a barrel, over which the oysterman rolled him vigorously, the apparently dead man revived. When he did get his senses back he wanted to thrash the whole party of rescuers…” Cooney himself wasn’t perfect: in 1892, he attacked another dealer with an oyster knife in a brawl – we don’t know why or how that played out in court. In 1899, when the temperature dropped to minus ten degrees Fahrenheit, his schooner Annie Cooney got stuck in the ice, and the abandoned boat became part of Philadelphia history, famously rescued by Philadelphia Ice Boat 3.
What does all this have to do with our church today?
Quite a lot! Our main altar was donated by John Cooney, which is why his name is engraved on its side. He requested our parish prayers in perpetuity, so he still figures frequently in the calendar of dedicated masses. And consider the symbolism: our Mary altar was donated by a female poet; the St. Joseph altar, by a family in the construction business; and our main altar, by a fisherman – and fisher of men. What could be more apt!