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 observed “It 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?!