John Deady recalls Bishop McShea’s tales of roller skating around the basement of St. Francis de Sales church as a child in the early 1920s, when the McShea family owned the house that used to stand right behind the school at 928 Farragut Terrace, and before our basement became the Lower Church.
Roller skating became an official parish activity, briefly, during the Great Depression, at a time when a skating history notes that “Americans turned to roller-skating for an inexpensive form of entertainment. By the late 1930s, roller-skating ranked second only to bowling as the most popular participation sport….” A school auditorium could easily be multipurposed as a rink, so Catholic parishes across the country offered the diversion to their flocks. In some places, nuns in swirling habits had their own special skating hour after everyone else went home!
A 1936 notice in the Parish Monthly Bulletin explained how skating worked at Saint Francis de Sales:
“We are gradually becoming a parish on wheels. The youngsters and the oldsters of the parish are ROLLER SKATING. Every Monday and Friday evening finds many of them cavorting and contorting in the Auditorium for their own enjoyment and the pleasure of the spectators. “The music goes around and around” and so do the skaters; it is surprising how few fall. The young boys and girls delight in circles, fancy figures, twists, turns, and waltzes, while their parents, dames and mesdames, graybeards and gallants, father and mothers circle and waltz after the manner of the pre-war days.” (that’s pre-World War I!)
“This parish activity should receive greater patronage from the boys and girls of the parish and greater encouragement from their parents. A splendid opportunity is afforded for the youth of the parish to meet with each other under favorable circumstances and to enjoy beneficial recreation. At the same time it need not be thought that it is only intended for the young. Doctors have recommended Roller Skating to cure and ward off the blues, arthritis, rheumatism, avoirdupois, high and low blood pressure, headaches, coughs, colds, and fever blisters. Its prophylactic value lies in the fact that, while roller skating, it is impossible to take ourselves too seriously in matters that are not important.”
“We would enjoy seeing many more enjoy themselves. The parish has the best of new equipment for two hundred persons. Those attending are very sociable and the attendants, who are boys of the parish, see to it that good order is preserved and those who are learners or recapturing the spirit of childhood are helped and instructed.”
“With the coming of colder weather, we hope that many will avail themselves of this parish activity. We would like it to be one of the social features of the parish. It is suggested that skating parties be formed and groups of friends come together to add to the enjoyment and pleasure of all concerned. Young and old are invited.”
Parish skating ended when the Auditorium was renovated in 1937 “at a considerable cost of money,” with a newly sanded, repaired, and painted floor. Entertainment changed to more sedate “Card and Radio” parties and dance “Socials.” The Catholic Bowling League started in Philadelphia in 1939 and our parish formed its own league in 1941.
Today, some find circular skating meditational. On the other side of the country, the pastime has an odd, lingering religious connection: in 2013, an abandoned Catholic church in San Francisco was turned into the “Church of 8 Wheels” roller disco “spreading rolligion around the world” — with signs at the entrance reminding that “many in the community still see this as a sacred place. Please be respectful.” It’s currently closed due to Covid, but outdoor roller skating is said to be making a comeback nationwide.