Divine Providence

Rev. Joseph O’Neill

Our patron saint Francis de Sales knew that outcomes can’t always be controlled, and things don’t always turn out as planned, but he advised: “If you have a sure trust in God, the success that comes to you will always be that which is most useful to you, whether it appears good or bad in your private judgment.

A long-ago news item, reporting an effort to change an archdiocesan assignment, offers an intriguing backward glance at the providence that brought us where we are today.

When our parish was carved from the territory of St. James Parish (today St. Agatha-St. James) at 38th and Chestnut, in 1890, our founding pastor was Reverend Joseph O’Neill, who had been assisting at St. James. In March 1898, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that parishioners at St. James moved to have him back:

“In fact the feeling has risen to such an extent that a meeting of the members the parish will be held evening in the church building, the intention being to prepare a formal protest to be sent to Archbishop Ryan.”

“In discussing the matter a member of the congregation said: ‘We are going to make this protest because we feel that Father Joseph O’Neill, now in charge of St. Francis de Sales, forty-seventh street and Springfield avenue, was entitled to the rectorship of St. James’ when it was made vacant by the departure of Father P. J. Garvey. Father O’Neill came to the parish sixteen years ago, just one year before Father Garvey assumed charge. When the mission St. Francis de Sales was started Father O’Neill was placed in charge and has been there ever since. Father O’Neill is a man 55 years old and has endeared himself to very one with whom he has been thrown in contact, and we do not like the idea of having him set aside for Father Monahan, who is from the Cathedral and whom we do not know.’”

“A committee has been appointed and they have been so energetic that a good meeting is expected. The members of the congregation who are foremost in the fight for Father O’Neill say that they do not oppose Father Monahan on personal grounds, in fact they would be pleased to have him as rector if Father O’Neill had not been slighted. It is realized, of course, that the congregation has no choice in the selection of rectors, but they think. that a strong protest will have weight.”

The efforts of St. James parishioners to get Rev. O’Neill reassigned to them were unsuccessful, but their story still ended well: the 1950 St. James Jubilee Book notes that “the Standard of February 26, 1898 carried the news of the appointment of Father James C. Monahan to the pastorate of St. James. This short-limbed, eloquent, kindly yet combative priest was to remain at St. James for twenty-seven years” where he became much beloved and respected, as one of their longest-serving pastors.

It may seem funny today, and we may even feel mildly insulted, to think that anyone ever felt Reverend O’Neill was being “slighted” by his appointment to our parish! By the time of the conflict, he had been with us for eight years, and had built our first chapel/school and the rectory.  But our Rev. Joseph O’Neill was the brother of former St. James pastor Rev. Francis O’Neil — who had built their church – so perhaps he represented continuity to parishioners at St. James, and they felt loyalty and feared the unknown.

How would things have been different, if Reverend Joseph O’Neill had not been our pastor? He chose the site for our church and we believe he named our parish Saint Francis de Sales to honor his deceased brother Francis — so we might have had a completely different name, location, patron saint, and identity. At the time of this letter in 1898, our future second pastor Rev. Crane, was assisting Bishop Prendergast at St. Malachy Church, planning renovations there (in the Byzantine style), working with architect Henry Dagit, so he would not have been available to come here. If Reverend O’Neill had been reassigned to St. James, some other second pastor would have built us a different church!

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