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).
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!
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”??!