Month: August 2017

Early Parishioners

sfds irish letter
Undated letter shown in 1940 Parish Jubilee book

 

 

 

 

SFDS Parish legend suggests that a long-ago letter written to Archbishop Ryan by an Irish servant girl inspired the creation of our parish. The original of that undated letter has long since vanished, and the name Mary Bryan is common enough to be so far untraceable in available archives. A careful reading of early histories shows that the letter was always considered more of a heartwarming artifact than a mandate.

 

So who really were our original parishioners?

They are said to have been Irish immigrants, and this is largely true — including a few militant Irish nationalists. However, Philadelphia also had a large Germanic population before the First World War, reflected in parish names such as Dagit, Lippe, Schwoerer, Engel, Vetterlein, and Speckman. Most Blessed Sacrament was mostly Irish and Italian: their 1917 history book notes that the pastor could speak to Italians “in their native tongue.” Photographs show African Americans in both parishes from early days.

Many houses in our immediate neighbourhood were constructed for middle-class professionals. Early parishioners included our church architect; the Maitre’d at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel; a renowned female poet; the owner of a fleet of oyster schooners; an electrician (Joe Ruane’s grandfather!); a railroad  foreman; a police chief; a movie theatre magnate; a liquor wholesaler; and several doctors, construction contractors, bankers, and realtors. We also had teachers, saloon keepers, and store owners.

Professions of younger parishioners, just starting out,  are a little more mystifying in the modern world: milliner (made hats);  milk salesman (delivered milk door-to-door); coal wholesaler (houses were heated by coal-fired burners); gas inspector (light fixtures were often dual-purpose gas-over-electric, since electricity was still new); telephone company auditor (landlines were new technology); stenographer (used special handwriting called shorthand to write down dictated information). And then there were the many local live-in servant girls.

What did all these folks do in their spare time?

In days before television, tablets, and smartphones, people socialized more. The parish was a community centre, at times offering religious clubs, bowling, roller skating, and radio and movie parties. Newspapers reported frequent “Euchre” card parties in the neighbourhood. Every institution seemed to have “Lawn Fetes” or other fundraisers during the year, and Catholics enthusiastically supported Catholic institutions from hospitals, to schools and nursing homes. The school offered youth organizations and activities. With fewer cars, people found entertainment nearby, and friendly rivalries among local churches helped to knit together a large, strong community – just as the dropped stitches of lost parishes and modern distractions have left holes today.

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Little Chapel in the Big Woods

mbs burke
Reverend P.F. Burke, First Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament

In June, 1901, eleven years after Saint Francis de Sales Parish was founded, Archbishop Ryan saw need for an additional parish further west. Reverend Patrick Burke, appointed its first pastor, imagined all the challenges ahead and suggested jokingly to the Archbishop that his new parish be named “The Agony in the Garden.” “Ah,” said his Grace, with a knowing smile, “Yes, Father Burke, you have a fine garden, but the agony is yet to come.”

Most Blessed Sacrament Parish was a “fine garden” back then. Its first Chapel, a temporary wooden building at 56th and Chester Ave., was dedicated in December 1901. A 1917 parish history provides a lyrical description of the landscape, when “the very ground now hallowed by the erection of our Chapel and School was part of a vast woodland…To the south and east the Schuylkill, teeming with its myriads of fish, wound through sylvan glades to meet the lordly Delaware, while on the western slope of this section…Cobb’s Creek (was a ) variegated ribbon in and out among the trees…But  “the busy march of progress” was turning forest into farmland and placing mills and factories along the waterways. When immigrant workers – many of them Catholic — needed housing, green fields further transformed into “long imposing thoroughfares lined with blocks of houses.”

mbs walsh
Rev. John Walsh, First Assistat at Most Blessed Sacrament

Conditions were primitive as the neighbourhood developed, and Father Burke suffered “many privations…. Gray’s Lane was at times almost a trough of yellow mud and he had to walk from 55th and Woodland Avenue to the Chapel. Some of the most public-spirited among the parishioners at their own expense had a part of the lane filled in and a cinder path laid. Once in a while, a good soul would provide a carriage to convey the delicate priest to Mass.” Father John Walsh came to assist in 1902, but Father Burke had already exhausted his frail health trying to build the parish and died in 1906, while the chapel/school and permanent church were still being planned.

The 1917 writer was already nostalgic: “Memory calls up the little wooden Chapel among the trees in all the glory of its rustic setting on a Sunday morning in Spring. Over the fields, up the lane and through the main thoroughfare, came these worshipers, eagerly and happily.  At the door smiling and buoyant stood Father John  welcoming the newcomers, learning the names of the children, and by his subtle charm winning souls and also gaining workers for the new church…”

Different times!