Month: May 2022

A Moving Story

MBS Chapel shown circa 1917

Usually, we expect an old building to stay solidly, reliably, fixed in one place, but the ever-adaptable MBS chapel has kept on moving with the times!

Its story began in 1885, when Reverend M.J. Lawler of newly established St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, in the rapidly growing Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia, received city planning permission to build a “temporary frame chapel” at 17th and Morris Street to serve the then mostly Irish immigrant population. Completed and dedicated in November 1889, the wooden structure was used until December 1901, when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “…Father Lawler started to build a church which, when finished, will be one of the largest in the city.”

The chapel had to be removed in order to make space for the new construction, so “it was carefully taken apart by workmen, and…presented to Father Burke” of the newly established Most Blessed Sacrament Parish at 56th and Chester. Father Burke then invited Father Lawler, who had said the first Mass in the chapel when it was dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, to say the first Mass at the dedication of the same chapel as Most Blessed Sacrament on December 22, 1901 (Incidentally, Reverend Joseph O’Neill of St. Francis de Sales was the Deacon for the dedication Mass, and the St. Francis de Sales Choir provided the music, so, fittingly, MBS and SFDS — destined to be combined as one in 2007 — celebrated their connection from the very beginning!).

A 1917 parish history provides a poetic description of those early MBS days: “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 worshippers…” A forest of row houses quickly replaced the trees, though, as that corner of the city grew, and a bigger worship space was soon needed to accommodate the mostly immigrant laborers spreading out from South Philadelphia. A stone chapel/school building was dedicated in 1908, and the cornerstone was laid for the church in 1922. Meanwhile, the little wooden building clung bravely to its corner, becoming the MBS Parish Assembly Hall.

In 1925, as the neighborhood continued to expand, Good Shepherd Parish formed at 67th and Chester Ave. The “small frame structure” from MBS found a new purpose: dismantled, moved, reconstructed, and repaired, it became the temporary new chapel, where, “on Sunday, July 26, 1925, the first Mass at Good Shepherd Parish was celebrated at 6:00 AM on the feast of St. Anne…” The little building happily served that Parish until their new church was consecrated in 1951 (Good Shepherd was consolidated into Divine Mercy Parish in 2004).

Chapel at Good Shepherd 1925-1951

The sturdy little chapel’s travels weren’t over! In 1951, Rev. Christopher Purcell, of the newly-formed St. Christopher Parish in Somerton, wrote to Cardinal Dougherty, that “Through the kindness of Father Hammill, Pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Phila., (who had, incidentally, assisted at SFDS 1934-1939) we have been given the temporary chapel at Good Shepherd Parish and its equipment which he no longer needs.” The St. Christopher’s Parish website notes that the chapel was used until the present church was built in 1978,then “The original church was converted to a hall, and re-named as Trainer Hall.” It’s still there on the St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers) parish grounds as they work on a capital campaign to expand their 1978 church!

Trainer Hall at St. Christopher Parish 1951-Present

John Deady likes to call this column “Have Chapel, Will Travel,” referencing a long-ago TV series about a man who moved around the American frontier, forever finding new adventures. Maybe he’s right about this plucky little chapel: next stop “Space, the final frontier”??!

The End of the Honeymoon

The 1930s are mostly remembered for the dreary slog of the Great Depression, the end of the national alcohol Prohibition experiment, and the dangerous rise of fascism around the world. But many personal milestones were also marked during the era – some with joy, some with sadness, and some in now-forgotten news headlines.

On September 1, 1934, our parish records show Reverend Toye officiating at the wedding of Joseph A. Drummond (of 3450 “F” Street) and Madeline Claire Finn (of 4618 Chester Ave.) M. Claire’s twin sister Marian was among the witnesses. A few hours later, following a wedding breakfast at the Hotel Normandie (366h and Chestnut), the couple went by train to New York City, to board a fateful honeymoon cruise.

The Morro Castle cruise ship was one of many “party boats” which had originated during the 1920s, to get around the Prohibition laws. The cruises sailed from New York City to Havana, Cuba, in two and a half days, spent two days there, then returned. It must have seemed like a perfect honeymoon: exotic travel with a hint of danger; cocktails, dining, and entertainment; ocean, tropics, moonlight, and a touch of luxury – all in one short jewel-like week.

The Drummonds enjoyed the first part of their trip, sending postcards home from Havana saying they were having a “swell time.” Cuba was an interesting place: historians note that “The period from 1933 to 1937 was a time of ‘virtually unremitting social and political warfare’” but the travelers were largely cocooned from the troubles.

A first hint of disturbance came when the ship’s Captain Willmott, who had seemed preoccupied, complained of indigestion after dinner on the last night of the cruise. Shortly afterwards, he died of an apparent heart attack. The evening dance was canceled out of respect. Then, somewhere near the coast of Asbury Park NJ, fire erupted, possibly in two separate places onboard, and the acting captain and his crew discovered that the mechanisms on half of the attractively-decorated lifeboats were clogged with dried paint, and couldn’t be lowered.

Gale force winds whipped up an inferno. The Catholic Standard related a survivor’s terrifying tale: “All the passengers were huddled together near the stern…There must have been 200 or more of us there. Most of them were half crazy with fear…Then…we saw Father Egan. He stood there outlined in flames…He raised his hands…and then he began to pray, while the passengers fell to their knees…Father Egan gave general absolution and then the fire got so close we all had to jump…” The NY priest would be among those rescued, but at least 134 people died, and many others were injured.

The Drummonds gave a short interview from a hospital in NY, recalling that “as the flames crept upon them they jumped hand-in-hand into the water. The impact of the water knocked Drummond unconscious” but he retained a bruising grip on his wife’s wrist. They stayed together, and when a Cuban woman drifted up, crying for her children, “they undertook to hold her above water” for six hours until they became exhausted, and she flailed and drifted away to her death. A lifeboat picked them up an hour later.

Joseph Drummond had puzzled over one odd incident before they sailed from Cuba, when a young black boy tried to board and the captain “seemed very excited. After the boy was searched he was put off the boat.”  Disgruntled sailors sometimes tried to supplement poor pay by smuggling goods and stowaways. Passengers were unaware of labor problems making the captain particularly jittery on this trip; the chief radio operator’s police record of theft, terrorist threats, arson, and murder has since come under scrutiny.

A handful of melted rosary beads, later recovered from the Drummond cabin, were the couple’s honeymoon memento, as they settled near the church at 4516 Springfield Ave. — baptizing two children, Joseph Kevin Drummond in July 1935, and Brian “Cresson” Drummond in April 1939 – before disappearing into the mists of parish history.