Tag: 1890s

Location, Location, Location

Have you ever wondered how our story—and our neighbourhood — might have been different if our church had been built in a different place?

So many spots were considered in the early days of our parish that it’s hard to keep track of what was real! The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in July 1890 that a site had been “secured” for first pastor Rev. Joseph O’Neill’s new church at “Forty-Seventh street near Chestnut.” Then, on October 31, it reported that “last week” Rev. Joseph O’Neill “purchased” a large lot “at Forty-seventh street and Chester avenue.” Were these two different plots or was the paper confused? A 1928 parish history affirms that Rev. O’Neill “secured a site at Forty-seventh Street and Chester Avenue, 250 feet by 150 feet, for the price of $15,000. But then, just to complicate things, a memo has surfaced referencing a “deed from Anthony A. Hirst to Most Reverend Patrick John Ryan, Archbishop of Philadelphia, recorded…July 1st, 1890, for the property at the intersection of 47th Street and Warrington Avenue and running through to Baltimore Avenue.” (the corner now occupied by the 801 S. 47th St. Cedar Park Place apartment building. The southern property line was actually closer to Windsor).

The 1894 First Annual Report of the Parish Debt Association – the closest document to the time – described the challenge of consolidating enough land to build since “the holders of certain lots would not sell, offering as an objection that they were opposed to the school which Catholics made the accompaniment of the church and parochial house. Other ground was reported swampy, and would not be accepted.” It confirmed the Forty-seventh and Warrington Avenuepurchase and observedIt was not the place most desired, but it was hoped that the Baptists, who had bought the property at the North-east corner of Forty-Seventh and Springfield Avenue, might eventually sell to them.”

Father O’Neill went to Europe July 1 and returned October 8, but negotiations continued while he was away, with Rev. P.J. Garvey (pastor of St. James at 38th and Chestnut — the “Mother Parish” of St. Francis de Sales) and lawyer Anthony A. Hirst working on his behalf.  At some point, Rev. O’Neill was notified that the “property at the North-east corner of Forty-seventh and Springfield Avenue was secured through his attorney, Anthony A. Hirst, Esquire.” A September 29 memo from Rev.  P.J. Garvey to Archbishop Patrick John Ryan noted that “this property referred to by Mr. Hirst and located at the South east (oopsie) corner of 47th St. and Springfield Avenue is in my judgement a much better and more suitable site for a church than that secured by Father O’Neill before his departure. I feel sure Father O’Neill will be well pleased at the change because this SE Cor. of 47th & Springfield Avenue was the place he wished to purchase in the first instance…While favoring this new site in preference to the old one, I must say that I think the new church should be nearer to Woodland Avenue and somewhat further West; but if 47th & Springfield suits Father O’Neill and the new congregation I shall be satisfied. Your obedient child in Christ, P.J. Garvey.” The Springfield Ave. deed was signed over on October 15, 1890.

According to the 1894 report, once the Springfield Ave. lot was purchased, “the former lot was then offered for sale. A small portion of it was retained to make ample room for the new buildings.” This has to refer to the Warrington/Baltimore Ave. site, which bordered the Springfield lot: the report continues “The lot held by Father O’Neill had a frontage of one hundred and forty feet and a depth of two hundred and sixty-five feet,” which matches the dimensions on the Springfield Ave. deed plus an extra fifteen-foot strip.

Oddly, the 1928 history, 34 years later, forgot Warrington and mentioned only the Chester Ave. plot, noting that “Father O’Neill returned in October (1890), and finding the site he had earlier purchased unsuitable, he disposed of it.” Assuming we are not dealing with multiple realities in alternate universes, this suggests that Father O’Neill could have purchased two properties to sell once he decided on 47th and Springfield Ave. Now, 132 years later, here we are, in a neighbourhood landmark under a Guastavino dome. Good choices?!


J.J. MacDermott Wins the U.S. Open

A writer calling from Ireland with a research request, alerted us to a forgotten golf celebrity in our parish history!

J.J. would have been about four years old in 1895, when a group of local enthusiasts improvised a nine-hole golf course at the Belmont Cricket Club (then located at 49th and Chester). The first four holes – made from tomato cans — were on the cricket club grounds; the other five were in a field next door, on the other side of an eight-foot fence that determined golfers had to climb! The golfers formed their own Belmont Golf Association in 1896, and, in 1897, the new club moved to 52nd and Chester, where legend said the old barn used as the clubhouse, “had once been the dwelling place for a Lenape chief named Aronimink, an odd name but one the BGA members eventually adopted and took with them to another site outside of town.” Little J.J. was fascinated, watching this strange new sport, and made his own golf course in his grandparents’ nearby orchard. At age 9, he “marched over to the club, which was, by that point, being called Aronimink, and announced that he would be the best caddie they ever had on the premises.” Walter Reynolds, the club professional, took a fancy to the plucky youngster and allowed him in.

                J.J. (John Joseph Jr.) MacDermott’s parents, John and Margaret, were married at St. James Parish (today St. Agatha St. James at 38th & Chestnut) on 15 November 1890. J.J. was born nine months later on 12 August 1891 – a year after our parish was founded – and was baptized in our parish that same month. His sisters Alice and Nora Gertrude were baptized here in 1893 and 1895. Their mother is supposed to have sung in the SFDS church choir, although we have no early records to confirm that. Their father was a mail carrier, and, reportedly, very strict. The MacDermotts lived at 1234 South 50th Street. Global Golf Post reports that J.J.’s grandparents, the Smiths, lived “a couple of streets over and a few blocks down.” According to records, they were also active parishioners. Young J.J. often stayed with them.

                When J.J.’s father wanted him to leave school in 1906, at age fifteen and begin working in a real trade, J.J. contrarily moved to Camden and took a job as assistant golf pro at the Camden Country Club, before becoming head professional at Merchantville Country Club in Cherry Hill a year later.        His career progressed quickly: in 1909, he finished 49th in the U.S. Open at Englewood Golf Club in New Jersey. In 1910, when the U.S. Open was at Philadelphia Cricket Club, he lost by 4. The following year, at Chicago Golf Club, “McDermott was 19 years old when he won the U.S. Open, making him the youngest winner in history, a record that still stands. He also was the first American to win the U.S. Open.” He won again in Buffalo, NY, in 1912 — a rare back-to-back victory.

                Sadly, J.J.’s rising star was a supernova. In 1913, in a burst of euphoria after winning the Shawnee Open, J.J., who had always been prone to odd, impulsive behavior, made a strange jarring speech scorning “British invaders” (boasting that Americans finally “owned” the U.S. Open), and then apologized, but his reputation was damaged. He still travelled to Britain for the British Open in June 1914, but he missed a boat, then his train was delayed, so he missed his qualifying tee time for the tournament. Returning across the English Channel, his ferry was struck by another ship and he had to board a lifeboat. Back home, misfortunes crowded upon him when his stock market investments failed. He had a nervous breakdown and moved back home with his parents (and back to the parish), before being committed to a mental hospital in Norristown in 1916. Formally diagnosed as schizophrenic in the 1920s, J.J. stayed in the institution until he died in 1971.

                The great theatre of world events upstaged J.J. MacDermott’s personal tragedy: World War I began in July 1914—just a month after his fateful British trip. And, as Doug Fraser has observed: “He’s like so many mentally ill people. It’s just easier to forget about them. It’s just easier to look away” — though perhaps J.J.’s hour is coming round at last as interest in his remarkable achievements seems to be suddenly renewed!

First Baptism

When William and Ellen Krapp baptized baby daughter Hannah, quietly, in a temporary new chapel above a Woodland Avenue store on October 19, 1890, they could have no idea that the brief record of their family event would be the opening line – the first recorded baptism — in the long history of our distinguished parish. Nor could they foresee their own family tragedy just ahead.

Census data suggests that William and Ellen (known also as Ella) may have married the same year that Hannah was born. The son of German immigrants, William was a barber by trade, and a widower with two children, age four and six. We don’t know anything about Ellen, except that her maiden name was McGettigan. They lived at 5210 Woodland Avenue.

         A son named William Jr., known as “Willie,” born a few years later, died at age fifteen months. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported his short sad story in a November 1895 court case: “The mother of the child testified that she took him to the Jefferson Hospital for treatment for teething. She was given a prescription which was put up at the dispensary attached to the hospital, and when she got home she gave the child a tablespoonful of the liquid. Shortly afterwards he began to cry and had difficulty in breathing. The child went into convulsions, and when she took him to the Presbyterian Hospital the doctors said he was suffering from carbolic acid poisoning. Mrs. Krapp also said that when she kissed the child her lips pained her as if they had been burned by poison.” The child died shortly afterwards.

  E. P. Stephens, the druggist at Jefferson, testified in court that the medicine he compounded for the child “was harmless, and was composed of one-half grain of carbolic acid diluted with one ounce of water, and one ounce of peppermint water.” He brought a similar sample of the formula to court, but Deputy Coroner Dugan thought the provided liquid was not “as strong as that which is supposed to have caused the child’s death. ‘You claim that the preparation is harmless,’ continued Mr. Dugan, ‘Wouldn’t you be afraid to drink it?’ ‘Not at all,’ replied Stephens,” swallowing theatrically from the little bottle without any harm.

After this display, the proceedings were put on hold until the baby could be autopsied. Dr. Graham, the physician in charge of the children’s ward at Jefferson, then tried to deflect blame to the mother for the child’s original condition, testifying that “the child had been affected with acute gastritis and catarrh of the stomach, brought on by improper feeding” when he was first brought in. However, Dr. Griggs, of Presbyterian Hospital, who attended the child when he was near death, testified that he “sampled the Jefferson Hospital prescription which had been administered to the little one…It was so strongly carbolic that his lips were burned by a portion, that accidentally ran down.”

On November 7, 1895, after reviewing the evidence, “the Jury rendered a verdict to the effect that the death was due to a mistake made by E. P. Stephens, a drug clerk at the Jefferson Hospital” who used too much carbolic acid in compounding the prescription (1 ounce instead of .5 grain). Stephens was not disciplined: “The jury and Coroner Ashbridge and Deputy Coroner Dugan were very lenient toward Stephens…not even, subjecting him to a censure, for it was shown that, ordinarily, he was very careful in his duties. ‘He has been compounding medicines for the past eighteen years, and it was the first mistake of the kind he has ever made.’”

The mother died three years later in 1898, age 43 years, and was buried from our church.

Whatever became of Baby Hannah, the first baby baptized in our church? Census data suggests she became an artist’s model, downtown, at age 19, before disappearing from the available records.    

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!

Woodland Avenue Roots

A002A story has been making the rounds that St. Francis de Sales Parish “was founded upstairs from a bar on Baltimore Avenue.”

It’s not true! And it’s just one of many casual pieces of misinformation that have been tossed into circulation about our church in recent times.

Where did our Parish actually begin? The Catholic Standard reported that the first Mass for the “New Mission Chapel” that would become our parish took place in a rented hall on the second floor of a commercial building on the “south east side of Woodland below Forty-ninth street” on February 16, 1890.

Woodland Avenue was one of the oldest, most well-known roads in the area. It began its life as part of the “King’s Highway” – a roughly 1,300-mile road laid out in the 1600s on the order of King Charles II of England, to link Boston, Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina. The local section was eventually renamed “Darby Road,” then became known as the “Darby Plank Road” in the 1850s, when it was covered with wooden boards to provide a better surface  “for the sporting fraternity, who speeded their fast horses over it.” When the boards wore out, racing stopped, and the road was renamed yet again as “Woodland Avenue.” Through all its early history, it was a busy, well-established commercial corridor; so when nearby farms and fields gave way to the rows of houses that we know today, and a need developed for a new parish to serve them, it was natural that our first Masses would find a home there.

The Woodland Avenue building where our first services were held is now long gone. The only photos available are the two supposed versions taken in 1940 for the Parish Jubilee Book: one with signs edited out, and an un-retouched version which shows a dry cleaner and an Oyster House on the ground floor, with a photographer or dentist occupying the second floor. We have so far been unable to determine what businesses occupied the premises in 1890, and the 1940 photos may not actually show the correct address.

The first Masses for Most Blessed Sacrament Parish are reported to have been held in a rented house at 5550 Woodland Avenue starting in May 1901.

How did the “Bar on Baltimore Ave.” story come about? Perhaps it emerged when someone misunderstood or misremembered that the piece of land on which our first chapel was built in 1891 (today it’s the part of the school that contains  the auditorium) included a small portion of the back lot of the Cherry Tree Inn – an historic hotel and tavern on Baltimore Avenue. The assertion could have been made flippantly, on the “spur-of-the-moment,” in one place — and then developed a life of its own.

Truth still matters.  In a modern age, when rapidly moving information is quoted and requoted in multiple places and different situations, it’s unhelpful to circulate half-remembered information without checking it, or to improve upon the facts in order to suit an agenda or to make a better story. Every misstatement or misrepresentation becomes a new tangle to upset or confuse and further complicate the future. We’ve seen that happen around the world in multiple contexts, in matters big and small, sometimes with horrifying results. Honest mistakes will occur but let’s make the sincere effort to limit them where we can.