Philadelphia Freedom, Catholic Style

A Catholic walk in the ‘Cradle of Liberty’.
by Stephen Vincent | Source: NCRegister.com

The City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, is America’s fifth biggest city. Only New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston are more populous.

Of course, Philadelphia is also one of the oldest — making it a fine place for a contemplative walk. Of special interest are some sites along roads less traveled, points of interest both for their Catholic heritage and their importance to our nation’s founding.

A few steps outside the city’s historic trolley loop, at 4th and Walnut Streets, is Old St. Joseph’s, the site of Philadelphia’s first Catholic church. Farther along 4th, you will find Old St. Mary’s Church, which served as the first cathedral after Philadelphia was named a diocese 200 years ago. In the now-exclusive Society Hill section, a few blocks from Independence Hall, both churches are well-maintained and host active congregations, preserving the old while making way for the new.

St. Joseph’s, founded and still staffed by Jesuits, celebrates its 275th anniversary this year. The first structure at the site was a chapel built in 1733 on Willings Alley, with a somewhat secluded entrance. Despite William Penn’s 17th-century Charter of Privileges for religious freedom for all inhabitants of his colony, this was a prudent placement for the entrance given the anti-Catholic sentiments of the time.

In fact, the official parish history states that, a year after the chapel opened, the city council brought up the matter and reported “no small concern to hear that a house lately built in Walnut Street was sett apart for the exercise of the Roman Catholick Religion and it is commonly called the Romish Chappell, where Mass [is] openly celebrated by a Popish priest contrary to the Laws of England.”

Fortunately for the small Catholic congregation, the charter of the Quaker Penn took precedence over English law.

In 1757 a larger church was constructed and, in 1789, a two-story Jesuit residence went up adjacent to the expanded church, with a handsome Federal-style exterior. The present church, consecrated in 1839, has a courtyard entrance that opens onto Walnut Street. The growth of St. Joseph’s reflects the increasing acceptance and influence of Catholics in the city and the new nation.

The interior of the church is graced by an altar flanked by twin Ionic columns that are topped by an arched connection. A classical-style painting of the crucifixion rests above the altar. The flat ceiling holds a heroic-scale painting dating to the late 19th century, “The Apotheosis of St. Joseph.” It’s the work of Italian artist Filippo Costaggini, who also worked on the U.S. Capitol’s rotunda.

On the west wall, as you enter from the back of the church, is a modern sculpture of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

Today’s parishioners are active in many social-outreach programs as well as in the care and maintenance of the historic building. In 2001 the parish launched a $1.5 million renovation campaign that included repairs to the trusses supporting the structure.


Famous Visitors and Tenants

George Washington worshipped on at least two occasions — and presumably did not sleep — at Old St. Mary’s Church. John Adams also sat for services there and wrote to his wife, Abigail, about the impressive Catholic ceremonies that “charm and bewitch” the simple folk.

As a sign that the founders were truly committed to religious freedom, the Continental Congress met four times at St. Mary’s for religious services, and a solemn Te Deum was sung there on July 4, 1779, to mark the third anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The lone Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Md., may also have attended the service. Born in 1737, he was the last of the signatories to die, going to his eternal reward at the age of 95 in 1832. His cousin, Jesuit John Carroll, became the first bishop of Baltimore and all of America in 1790.

Before you enter Old St. Mary’s, stand on the opposite side of 4th Street to admire the simple but solid brick façade that has stood from the time of the church’s construction in 1763, when it began as a mission of St. Joseph’s. The surrounding graveyard provides a walk through American Catholic history.

In fact, the entrance to the church originally was on 5th Street and through the cemetery, but the church interior was later reconfigured for the doors to open onto 4th Street.

In the cemetery lie Commodore John Barry, father of the U.S. Navy, who was the first to capture a British vessel during the Revolutionary War; Thomas Fitzsimons, who signed the Constitution and was a member of the Continental Congress; Mathew Carey, early America’s most successful publisher; and Michael Bouvier, great-great grandfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was the first of his prominent French family to settle in the United States.

Step inside the rugged building and view the simple beauty. Like St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s has a painting on the flat ceiling, this one — appropriately — of the assumption of Mary into heaven. Also like its “spousal” church up the block, St. Mary’s has a painting of the crucifixion behind the altar.

The similarities are not incidental. The two churches actually were part of the same parish from 1763 to 1821.

Both churches are also linked to the proud educational mission of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia. A theology school begun in Old St. Mary’s rectory in 1832 flourished into St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the archdiocese’s spacious seminary just outside the city.

In keeping with the tradition of the Jesuits, and to keep up with the influx of European immigrants during the 19th century, Old St. Joseph’s opened a number of primary grade schools, a boys’ academy and an academy for girls staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Higher education was introduced in the 1851 with the expansion of the rectory to accommodate college students.

Both the present St. Joseph’s University, with 7,000 students on its own campus, and St. Joseph’s Preparatory School stem from this parish school.

So it is that Philadelphia’s Catholic heritage is an essential aspect of its identity as a uniquely American city. 



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