The church and school buildings of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish (56th and Chester Ave.) were sold after the parish merged with Saint Francis de Sales in 2007, but they are still a part of the landscape — now finding a new life as Independence Charter School West, a “community-based public charter school” of the School District of Philadelphia, chartered in 2016. Other significant spots, once important to MBS parish, are long gone, though – their presence faded behind the visible layers of local history:
5500 Woodland Avenue
When Reverend Patrick F. Burke was named first pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in June 1901, a 1917 history reports “his first home was the house 5500 Woodland Avenue, and in its upper room, the first Mass was offered, and the first congregation of this Parish listened to his stirring appeal.” A 1907 account by Monsignor Bernard McKenna, describes the property less romantically as “an old dilapidated house which had not been occupied for seventeen years.” Whatever its condition, it was the first home of MBS Parish, and Father Burke continued to live there after the MBS chapel was erected at 56th and Chester in December 1901. It was not an easy commute: a 1917 history reports “Father Burke’s health had been failing for some time and he had to suffer many privations in those days. For instance, Gray’s Lane was at times almost a trough of yellow mud and he had to walk from 55th and Woodland Ave 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…. The archdiocese gave him several Assistants to help him in his duties, and he lived at the Woodland address until 1906.
5406 Chester Avenue
MBS First Pastor “Father Burke’s Silver Jubilee occurred in June 1906, and the parishioners presented him with a purse. The old residence on Woodland Ave was abandoned and a new home at 5406 Chester Ave rented. In the following Autumn, October 9, 1906, on Tuesday evening after a lingering illness the first pastor died. His remains were escorted from the rectory to the Chapel (wooden building at 56th and Chester) by a number of the clergy.”
5548 Chester Avenue
The head of the IHM order promised Third Pastor Rev. James T. Higgins that she would send four sisters to open MBS school in September 1908. “Since the parish lacked a convent. It was decided that the sisters would live nearby at Saint Francis de Sales and St Clements convents. However, before they arrived the following September, the priests of the parish gave up the comforts of the rectory at 5406 Chester Ave and took up residence in the combination church and school building (new stone building by Henry Dagit finished in 1908. The MBS Rectory would not be built until 1918). This cut down a major parish expense and enabled the pastor to use the money saved to obtain a home at 5548 Chester Ave to be used as a convent.” The school would open on September 5, 1908, and “When the sisters arrived, they found the convent prepared and furnished in a simple but comfortable way.” (Permission to build a permanent convent at MBS was granted in 1919, and the Sisters moved into it in 1921).
56th and Chester Ave. Magical Moving Chapel
The Most Blessed Sacrament chapel – a small wooden frame building donated by St. Thomas Aquinas Church – was erected on the southern end of the lot at 56th and Chester Avenue and dedicated on December 22, 1901. 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…” The neighborhood grew quickly, and the church expanded with it. A stone chapel/school building was dedicated in 1908, and the cornerstone was laid for the church in 1922. Meanwhile, the little wooden building – repurposed as the MBS Parish Assembly Hall and school gym — clung bravely to its spot until it was needed by the newly-established Good Shepherd Parish (67th and Chester Ave.), and moved there in 1925. Find its further adventures here: https://sfdshistory.wordpress.com/2022/05/27/a-moving-story/
Father Daniel Gatens, writing the MBS Parish 1976 Jubilee Book, observed that “the history of any parish…is the story of people and the story of buildings.” The buildings connect us to the people and the neighbourhood and give us roots. Even when they are gone, an awareness that they were once there brings a small jolt of recognition in passing and perhaps a smile and a feeling that we are all connected.