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!

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