Tag: St. James Parish

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!

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What’s in a Name

 

logoAsk any expectant parent, perusing a book of baby names, why the ritual is important: a name is the first gift that forms the heart of identity.

rev. francis o'neill
Rev. Francis O’Neill, Pastor of St. James

Why did Reverend Joseph O’Neill choose to name our new parish Saint Francis de Sales in 1890? The Centennial book for the Parish of Saint James the Greater: Mother Parish of West Philadelphia, suggests that Joseph may have chosen the name to honor his brother, the Reverend Francis O’Neill – the fifth pastor of St. James — who began to build the church at 38th and Chestnut (it became the combined parish of  St. Agatha-St. James in 1976) and who died suddenly in 1882, ostensibly worn-out by the effort.

A003 Joseph O'Neill
Rev. Joseph O’Neill, First Pastor of St. Francis de Sales

It seems plausible. The brothers were reportedly close, and Joseph assisted Francis at St. James, so a saint named “Francis” could have been a quiet tribute to a beloved brother, while the particular choice of Francis de Sales – a learned Doctor of the Church connected the new church with its university-bordered parent. The Bishop of Geneva, exiled to Savoy,  was also a good patron saint for a new parish whose early donors and pew-holders included those of German and Irish descent, as well as French and other Europeans. Our parish, though proud, never was a cathedral – any more than Saint Alice or Saint Malachy, also homes to assistant bishops in their day.

mbs burke
Reverend P.F. Burke, First Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament

Nearly a decade after SFDS was founded, Reverend Patrick Burke (who also came from St. James), looked out at the farmland of his newly assigned patch at the southwestern edge of St. Francis de Sales, and all the new row houses for immigrants churning up through the mud around it, and threatened, smilingly, to name his parish “Agony in the Garden,” after the first sorrowful mystery of the rosary; Bishop Ryan is said to have responded “ you have here a fine garden, but the agony is yet to come… Most Blessed Sacrament Parish was founded in May 1901, close to the feast of Corpus Christi. Reverend Burke “was known at the time as one of the clearest expounders of Catholic doctrine and had a large following of converts,” so his chosen focus on the “Real Presence” was a missionary banner for his “garden.”

Decades passed, and by the time both parishes celebrated their centennials, parish identities were distinct, congregations were small and circumstances were changing. In 2007, representatives from the two old rivals SFDS and MBS, sat down together to agree upon the name “Saint Francis de Sales Parish United By the Most Blessed Sacrament” for a new parish that would unite the remnants of two diverse communities in one building. Its emblem would include a monstrance and a dome, symbols of the two groups, with the name of the newly-formed parish – a careful combination of both old parish names — sheltered underneath.

Today’s combined parish contains all that is left of Most Blessed Sacrament and we are responsible for preserving its memory, alongside that of the old Saint Francis de Sales Parish. It is easier to identify with Saint Francis de Sales, since we worship in its building, where the layers of  history are embedded in the walls. Most Blessed Sacrament – with its strong social mission, and a school once heralded as the “largest parochial school in the world” – has left behind fewer written records.

The Third Eucharistic Prayer says “You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name...”  Our parish name contains an arc of history  – a perfect rainbow – that stretches all the way across the neighborhood, from our parent church of Saint James, at 38th and Chestnut, near the University of Pennsylvania, to the “garden” where MBS once cultivated a heritage of education and service at 56th and Chester, and where globally-focused Independence Charter School West stands today. Our full identity is encompassed in the spread – and in order to make that pure sacrifice, we need to draw sustenance from all of our traditions.