Tag: Reverend William Flatley

A Snapshot in Time


A browse through the parish archives turned up an unlabeled  photo from a long-ago ceremony – back when the sanctuary was lighted with electric candles on a tall stand, the altar rail had brass gates, there was no front-facing altar, and the old dark pews were still in place.

Parishioner historians John and Ted Deady, who grew up in the parish, offered some observations about the elaborate pageantry they recall from pre-Vatican II ritual, and a few of the names:

Okay. Will start with this. The priest holding the book of the gospels is Father Sefton, later monsignor and pastor (at SFDS 1946-1947; pastor 1961-1967). The priest incensing the book is Father Flatley (at SFDS 1940-1943 and 1946-1955; WWII military chaplain in between). The two altar boys holding candles are the acolytes and the other altar boy is the thurifer (who carries the incense container, or thurible). The other priest in a surplice is the master of ceremonies. At a regular solemn high mass this would be an altar boy. Fr Sefton is the sub deacon and Fr. Flatley is the deacon. He will read the gospel in Latin. Then not sure if he or someone else will suddenly appear in the pulpit and read the gospel in English. Whoever is in the pulpit will then preach the sermon starting with ‘may it please your excellency’ or ‘eminence’ depending on who the celebrant is. That is a mystery.”

The bishop in the seat is presiding and the two monsignors are his chaplains. The two altar boys in white cassocks are part of a gang of six called flambeaus. When Fr Navit was pastor (2004-2009) he had a similar group. They hold the lanterns during the consecration. The ones in the picture are just better dressed. “

What the occasion is and who is celebrating the mass are mysteries. It was in the winter, fur coats. The sisters did not routinely attend the 11:00 o’clock (solemn) mass. The master of ceremonies is not a familiar face meaning he might have come with the celebrant in a package deal.”

Fran Byers, another from-the-cradle parish historian, replied to this  “Wow, John,   I am really impressed.   We girls were not privy to any of this,” which is, itself,  notable. Ted notes that “Women were not allowed in the Sanctuary except for their wedding (Vatican rule).” What did girls do Pre-Vatican-II? John recalls that all SFDS School children, except those boys who were scheduled to serve or sing at the weekly solemn Mass, were required to attend a separate Sunday children’s service, where attendance was taken – parents had to send a written excuse for absence. Girls couldn’t serve at Mass or sing in the choir. Twice a year, they were invited to follow the boys in a Eucharistic procession, strewing flower petals, and girls were selected to perform the crowning of the Mary statue in the annual May Procession (which was led by the boy “popes” and altar servers). Their mothers joined the Sodality, a ladies’ organization devoted to prayer and good works.


Father Flatley Enlists

1943 photo fr. flatley in uniformRev. William Flatley assisted at SFDS from May 1940 until he enlisted in June 1943. The Parish Monthly Bulletin reported: “While here, Father did grand work among the High School students, Ushers and the men of the Holy Name Society, also in various other projects which were assigned to him. We are certain that Father will make a good Chaplain and will be an asset to the Chaplains Corps of the United States Army” in World War II.

The Bulletin reported his progress: “At present Father Flatley is in the training school for Chaplains at Harvard University. He will remain there for a period of four weeks after which he will be assigned to some Army Camp…” A 1945 De Sales Night Program later added “On October 19, 1943, Captain Flatley embarked for England. In July, 1944, he reached France, Belgium, and probably elsewhere. His assignments included an Evacuation Hospital, an Anti-Aircraft Group, and a Tank Destroyer Outfit. We hear from Father Flatley regularly. In his travels abroad he has met many of our boys, among them PFS John C. Mundy, who is with the First Army. Christmas afforded him a most pleasant experience. After saying Mass, he came upon another boy of the Parish, Sgt. Francis C. Boyle.”

In March 1945, the St. Louis Register reported on one of his assignments: “The Stars and Stripes fly over the celebrated Abbey of Maria-Laach…” (German Rhineland) where “The 800-year-old abbey, a masterpiece of Romanesque, is intact. Abbot Ildefons Herwegen and the entire community were found well. The magnificent liturgical services continue, although the community is considerably reduced. Seven priests, three clerics, four postulants, and fourteen brothers drafted by the Nazis, are still in the army….The abbey buildings were used as a Nazi hospital. The U.S. Catholic Army Chaplain now stationed in Maria-Laach is the Rev. William H. Flatley, Philadelphia, who has Mass every afternoon in the famous abbey church.

It could have been an awkward posting and Flatley did well to focus on the abbey’s ancient heritage. In the early 1930s, the Maria-Laach Abbey reportedly became a center for “right-wing Catholics…The monks, politicians, businessmen, theologians and students who gathered there were strongly influenced by the idea of a coming ‘Reich’, hoping to build a third Holy Roman Empire…” and in 1933, Herwegen had proclaimed “Let us say a wholehearted yes to the new structure of the total state, which is thought to be entirely analogous to the structure of the church.” Nazism later proved hostile to Catholicism and the monks became “a regular target of state attacks. It was only the Nazi persecution of the churches… that forced Herwegen to see the regime in a new light…” Getting things back in order, Flatley may at times have had to channel our patron St. Francis de Sales, who advised “When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.

Father Flatley came home in 1946: the Parish Monthly Bulletin reports that “After three years in the service, Father William Flatley has been discharged and has been appointed to return to St. Francis de Sales…” He stayed here until 1955.  Fran Byers says: “I remember Father Flatley well and liked him (and all the other priests) very much.  To me, he was kind of a nice tough guy.  He could enforce discipline effectively.   For example, if two boys acted up at one of our Friday night dances, Father Flatley would come over to the auditorium, usher the offenders out the side door to the school yard and do whatever was needed to convince them to behave properly. I didn’t witness what his methods were.” Author Constance O’Hara wrote that he had “the gentleness of all strong people” with his “patience, kindness, and…the compassion of his Christ.” She credited him with a crucial role in her return to Catholicism, gently, persistently, urging her to focus outward and offer up her personal sufferings for faraway soldiers in Korea.

Monsignor William Flatley eventually became Pastor and then Pastor Emeritus of Immaculate Conception Parish, Jenkintown. He died May 23, 1992, one day after the 55th Anniversary of his ordination.


flatley returns bulletin

flatley and chaplains

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A Room With A View

DSCN6647Constance O’Hara’s 1955 biography Heaven was Not Enough, chronicled a personal crisis of faith in an eerily relatable setting.

Born near Rittenhouse Square in 1905, Constance came from a well-connected, well-to-do Philadelphia Irish Catholic family in an “age of immense security and serenity.” Her father was the physician for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and local convents; her great uncle was the first Bishop of Scranton. Her family were also linked, in some way, with Eleanor Donnelly – the “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church” who contributed our Blessed Mother altar.

That solid world began to turn hollow in May 1914, when Constance made her First Holy Communion — two months before the start of World War I. Her father, rejected by every branch of the military due to his fragile health, then exhausted himself tending patients through the Influenza epidemic of 1918. Inspired by Blessed Thérèse, the “Little Flower,” who would be canonized in 1925, he quietly carried her relic and “offered up” his sufferings as his health slowly deteriorated.

Our neighborhood enters the story at this point: Constance writes that “my mother, with the realities of life swamping her, returned to the precepts of her ancestors – a belief in bricks and mortar. We bought a vast house on Baltimore Avenue (number 4331 per parish records), its front windows flooded with sunshine, its back rooms dark and damp. It faced Clark Park which seemed like the wilds of the country. The oak paneling was solid and magnificent, as my mother pointed out; the furnaces consumed tons of coal and we were never warm. Over this uneasy home was suspended a mortgage bearing a staggering interest rate...”

DSCN3138 (2)I still went to Sunday Mass with my father, often to the ornate Church of St. Francis de Sales where Bishop Michael Crane met us at the door, saying in a booming cheerful voice that maddened me: “It’s time you got a nice Irish Catholic boy to marry that one. I’ve just the lad in mind. I’ll send him over tonight...”

Constance was not receptive. She notes that the years after WWI and during Prohibition were “an ugly period in which to be young.…” Cynical youth like herself  “were going to be honest about everything, and as the old moral values were based on hypocrisy we would dispense with them” and “just get as much pleasure from money and our senses as possible before it all ended in the final defeat of death…” while an off-kilter world careened towards the Great Depression of the 1930s and WWII.

After an unfortunate visit to an unnamed confessor at SFDS when her father died in 1926 – she wanted comfort, but was scolded, instead, for “indulging in self-pity” — Constance rejected the Church for many years. Nonetheless, one day in 1933, when “the sun poured in the windows of my room, and the tall trees in Clark Park had never seemed so beautiful...” she wrote  a “profoundly Catholic play” called The Years of the Locusts, about an enclosed convent of Irish Benedictine nuns surviving in occupied Belgium during the First World War, based on real diaries. The play was performed locally at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Tree and was picked up for a run in London, but the beginning of World War II derailed those expansive plans.

1943 photo fr. flatley in uniformA long period of small achievement followed, punctuated with illness and depression, before Constance reconciled with the Church in the early 1950s. This was due, in part, to Reverend William Flatley, recently returned to SFDS from service in WWII, who gently encouraged her to offer up her personal suffering for American soldiers then fighting in Korea – and she wrote her healing memoir. She died in 1985, but her story remains like a leaded-glass window to another age, offering odd glimpses of a familiar,  unfamiliar landscape though its diamond panes.