Tag: Chester Avenue

Little Sisters of the Poor

In 1869 Archbishop Wood of Philadelphia invited the Little Sisters of the Poor from France to come and assist in caring for the vast numbers of elderly poor in the city regardless of race or religious beliefs. The Charism of the Foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, serving the poorest in simplicity, humility, and trust in Divine Providence (begging), imbued them with the gift of fortitude for over 150 years in Philadelphia through faithfully observing their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and hospitality, while personally assisting the dying with the firm belief that, as St. Jeanne said – “It is Jesus Himself whom you are serving in the Poor.”

Philadelphia Inquirer January 23, 1905

Did you know the Little Sisters of the Poor have been quietly serving the needs of the poor and the elderly in our neighborhood for 120 years? They’ve been here almost as long as SFDS (1890) and MBS (1901). And now, in a new age of need, our combined parish has a chance to renew connections with the Little Sisters that make us all stronger together.

The story of the Little Sisters of the Poor in this part of the city began in July 1902, when five Sisters “opened a non-sectarian house for the aged, southwest corner of Forty-second street and Baltimore avenue” in what appears to have been a four-story house (today an apartment building stands on the site), within the boundaries of St. Francis de Sales Parish. A mendicant order, relying entirely on charitable donations, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “the Sisters in their new quarters commenced with literally nothing. Now twenty feeble old persons are under their care, and there are moments when the next meal is a serious problem. The only support derived by the home is that secured by personal solicitation from door to door…

Many neighbors and others did want to be a part of the worthy effort, so that the following year, on November 2, 1903, Bishop Prendergast was able to lay the cornerstone for the “new house of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Fifty-fourth and Chester avenue,” within the boundaries of the recently established (1901) Most Blessed Sacrament Parish. The Inquirer noted that “The ceremony, solemn in itself, was rendered all the more effective by a procession of the children of the parish of the (Most) Blessed Sacrament, carrying silk banners of various hues, representing the sodalities of the church.” When the finished building was dedicated in 1905, Bishop Prendergast was “assisted by Rev. M.J. Crane, of the Church of St. Frances De Sales (sic!)…The altar boys were from the Church of the Gesu, (Most) Blessed Sacrament, and St. Francis de Sales,” so the local parishes continued to affirm their support.

Since it was just a few blocks away, Most Blessed Sacrament Parish School, at 56th and Chester, would develop a particularly positive relationship with the Sisters over the years, and some youthful helpers even returned later to serve as adults. Jim Dengler, a volunteer and former Advisory Board Member, recalls how, in his youth, fellow MBS students “would volunteer in the home’s kitchen or laundry room, or help assist the Little Sisters in taking care of the Residents, and some of the boys would serve as altar boys at Mass. But I would bet none of them left without something good to eat, for the Little Sisters’ hospitality is the best.” Don Carter, retired Director of Plant Operations & Maintenance at the home, also recalls that “My first experience with the Little Sisters was when I was in first or second grade at Most Blessed Sacrament School.  The school was having a canned good drive for the Little Sisters Home down the street.  I wondered how the Sisters could live off tomato soup because that was all that mom would part with.  Little did I know that one day I would be helping stack all the canned goods that would be coming in on food drives!”

Through good times and bad, the Little Sisters welcomed the “poor elderly” at Sacred Heart and two other facilities in the city until the Sacred Heart building closed in 1969 “to make way for a more modern facility.” A new building, combining all three Philadelphia homes (St. Mary’s, St. Michael’s and Sacred Heart) in one place, “opened on the same location on April 13, 1973, and was dedicated to the Holy Family.” Meanwhile, the neighborhood around it continued to change. MBS School would close its doors in 2002. MBS Parish combined with SFDS in 2007, and, with a dizzying succession of pastors, the combined parish lost track of some of its old neighborhood connections.

Today, still focused on their mission, the Little Sisters recognize that “Material deprivation is only one form of poverty. Others that weigh heavily upon a person are: isolation, insecurity, the anguish of feeling that one is a burden on others, or being unwanted, seeing one’s self become weaker and weaker, and in some cases, being abandoned…” They still rely upon volunteers and charitable donations for their work, so that “with the help of a dedicated staff, the Sisters care for Residents in Independent Apartments and Skilled Nursing Units.” The Sisters have started a capital campaign to upgrade yet again on the same site. Here’s an opportunity to see what we can do to help!

In Search of the Grail on Chester Ave.

Philadelphia Grail Center at 4520 Chester Avenue in 1955. (Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center. Temple University Libraries. Philadelphia, PA)

 Aileen McGovern, widow of Nativity artist Bob McGovern, inspired an interesting quest when she mentioned that Bob’s first wife Beverly (d. 1970) had been a “Grail Girl” before marriage. It sounded so medieval!  What could it mean?

                Research led to 4520 Chester Avenue (The Gables B&B, today), once used by Carmelite nuns as a retirement home. Purchased by The Grail in 1954, it underwent “an orgy of renovating,” in which volunteers joined in “removing varnish, sanding floors, plastering, painting, and repairing,” before the twenty-room house opened as “The Grail Center,” “a new type of resident Adult Education, designed to help young women develop themselves more fully in Catholic life…

What was the Grail? The international organization was the 1921 vision of a Dutch Jesuit priest, who “felt that many new possibilities were opening up for women and that a group of lay women, unconfined by convent walls and rules, could make an immense contribution to the transformation of the world.” By 1939, thousands of women belonged to the Grail in the Netherlands, Britain, and Germany.Marian Ronan then notes that two Dutch Grail members “brought the Grail to the U.S. in 1940, just before the Nazi invasion.” Its first U.S. home was Chicago, IL; then, it moved to a farm called Grailville outside Cincinnati, OH, with a mission “deeply connected to the Catholic ‘Back to the Land’ movement.” As it expanded, the Grail also supported a social mission. The Philadelphia Grail, approved in 1952 by Archbishop O’Hara (who had an SFDS connection), and headed by Anna McGarry, “a pioneer in Catholic interracial work,” had a special hope: “to discover potential leaders among black women” and nurture their talents.

How did it all work? The NCWC News Service reported that girls would live at The Grail for a three-month course covering “everything from Scripture to social action,” and “those with special interests will be offered courses in arts and crafts, writing, music and the recreation home arts in their relation to the lay apostolate.” Many girls stayed on or came back to enjoy the “Open House on Saturday nights for Mass preparation, Sunday breakfasts after Mass devoted to discussions on women’s apostolate, an evening a week for a choir and another on family service. An art and bookstore was soon set up in a large room on the first floor.”

                Parishioner Maureen Tate, active since the 1980s, learned that in the 1960s, “Many of the women who lived and worked at the Grail Center came from a year-long training experience at GrailvilleMen and women participated in lecture series and prayer experiences at the Grail Center. Many women met their husbands at these programs and many later settled in Mt. Airy with their families…The Grail was active in Civil Right marches and anti-racism efforts locally. They sponsored, and were active in ecumenical programs…

How did the Grail connect with our Parish? The Catholic Standard and Times reported that “Participation in the Mass is the high, point of the day—the girls must rise early…but this is training for a lifetime of conviction that it’s the Mass that matters.”  Grail member Maclovia Rodriguez who ran the Grail Bookshop in 1958-59, recalls daily Mass was at SFDS. So were the marriages! Bob and Beverly McGovern were married at SFDS in 1963.

There were also other neighborhood interactions: parishioner Jerry McHugh recalls his mother taking him to a “different” store when he was about six – the Grail Bookstore – where they bought his first Advent Calendar! He also remembers the bread made in the Grail bakery. His relatives recall the Grail Family Service, “through which Grail members would come into the homes of women after childbirth, to provide assistance.”

                After Jerry’s Dad, realtor Gerald McHugh, helped sell 4520 Chester to the Jesuits in 1966, The Grail Center was in Wynnefield until 2003, then met at various city locations. Today, as an ecumenical women’s spiritual organization with centers in OH and NY, https://www.grail-us.org/  “envisions a world of peace, justice and renewal of the earth, brought about by women working together as catalysts for change.”