Petroleum Sunday

petroleum guild (2)

Why does the banner in this SFDS archival photo show the Virgin Mary standing in the middle of an oil refinery?

A little drilling reveals that “Petroleum Sunday” was observed around the last Sunday of April, from the 1940s to the 1960s, by members of the petroleum industry and their families. A book on religion and the oil industry by Darren Dochuk explains that “An oil trucker had come up with the idea in 1941” to share Mass once a year with Catholic co-workers. The idea gained traction when the Catholic Petroleum Guild was formed in 1948 with the goal to “‘to pray for every member of the petroleum industry, both living and dead’; ‘to promote success of the petroleum industry and prevent any major disaster’; ‘to seek divine guidance in all dealings of management and labor’; and to ‘stimulate the observance of Petroleum Sunday among all creeds in the industry by encouraging them to attend their churches in group at least once a year.’

What did that have to do with our Parish?  The two priests shown in the photo are Reverend William H. Flatley and Reverend David Thompson, both of SFDS. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in May 1952, that when 1,909 employees of the Atlantic Refining Company met for the first annual Communion-breakfast of the Philadelphia branch of the Catholic Petroleum Guild, their Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church “was sung by the Rev. William H. Flatley, assistant rector of St. Francis de Sales Church, and chaplain of the guild.”

The local group grew quickly. By April 1954, the Inquirer reported that “Employees of Atlantic Refining Co., Cities Service Oil Co. and Union Tank Car, comprising the Ave Maria Group of the Catholic Petroleum Guild,” were holding their Annual Communion Breakfast at the Cathedral, celebrated by our Reverend Flatley, while an Our Lady of Fatima Group had a separate event, with a different chaplain, at St. John the Evangelist. Why was the Catholic Petroleum Guild so popular? Sociologist Robert Finke notes that America was, at the time, a “melting pot” of cultures and ethnicities, but the mixture was lumpy.  Many employee clubs and gatherings in businesses and industries were overtly Protestant, and even some of the secular organizations were not Catholic-friendly, so “Catholics in most professional and semiprofessional occupations enrolled in local chapters of (Catholic) organizations…In these and countless other ways, American Catholics created a parallel society within which they were protected from Protestant insults as well as from Protestant influences…

Some of these differences began to fade as greater issues emerged. In the oil industry, as production began to move to the Middle East – a region also interesting to the Soviet Communists – Dochuk notes that American petroleum companies worked to promote a more shared “sense of citizenship…forged out of common …commitment to Judeo-Christianity..Throughout the early 1950s, oil companies proselytized faith as the bedrock of American civilization. Confronted with countervailing forces of atheism and socialism and Cold War nuclear and geopolitical tensions, Americans, they charged, needed to cling tightly to spiritual truths…

In Philadelphia, when Judge Clare Gerald Fenerty addressed the first annual Communion-breakfast of the Catholic Petroleum Guild in 1952, he spoke against “Soviet aggression” and highlighted the “need for those who believe in Western Christian values” to build “impregnable ramparts against dictator Stalin’s attempt to become ruler of the world.” Liberty Magazine noted in 1956 that “For the first time this year Petroleum Sunday was observed in Baghdad.” by American workers.

What ultimately happened to “Petroleum Sunday?” History!


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