St. Joachim Church, Philadelphia

St. Joachim Church, Philadelphia

St. Joachim Roman Catholic Church was the first Roman Catholic church founded in Northeast Philadelphia. Established in 1845 in the Frankford neighborhood of Philadelphia the parish still serves the community today.


Founding through construction of second church

The history of St. Joachim’s Roman Catholic Church in Frankford began in the year 1843. About twenty men met in a small house in the area of the northern portion of the Frankford borough of Philadelphia. This meeting was held to discuss the purchase of a tract of land in which to construct a Catholic Chapel for the area of Frankford. Up until and during that period many Catholics in the area would worship at either St. Michael’s on Second Street or St. Stephen’s, both in Philadelphia. Those present at that meeting included William Keenan (the homeowner), John McCafferty, John Haney, Timothy Britt, Patrick Farren.

The result of the meeting was the purchase of a tract of land around the area of Harrison Street and Frankford Avenue for $600 from the Thompson estate. Shortly after this the acquired land was exchanged for the present site of St. Joachim’s church on June 18, 1844. The reason given was that many residents felt that this location on Harrison Street was “out in the fields”. The present site, which a Dr. Lamb donated, stands at what is now Griscom, Church, and Penn Streets. The property at Harrison Street was sold for $650 to a Mr. Charles Ball. The corner stone would not be laid until September 28, 1845. So until that time Sunday school was held in a house on Paul Street.

Early in 1844, Rev. Dominick Forestal, who would become St. Joachim’s first pastor, was an assistant at St. Mary’s Church located on South 4th Street in Philadelphia. He was appointed to visit Frankford and to evaluate the situation. He found that the congregation was quite small, but large enough to warrant the building of a church. After informing the bishop with the state of affairs in Frankford, the bishop at the time was The Most Reverend Francis Patrick Kenrick, Father Forestal received the necessary authority to begin the task of building the church in Frankford. An even greater task now faced Father Forestal, and that was collecting the funds to do so. To his surprise many of the residents of Frankford stepped up and gave what they could. The building contract was awarded to Lewis Lakey, carpenter and Thomas E. Deal, mason. The estimated cost was $9,000.

Even though the purchase of the land occurred in 1843, and the permission was given to Father Forestal to build in 1844, the cornerstone was not laid until September 28, 1845 due to the fact of the native riots in the city in 1844. It was these riots, primarily focused at but not limited to Catholics of Irish origin that saw the burning of Catholic churches in the area. These riots did not touch the Frankford area and the building of the new Catholic Church was under way. The blessing and the laying of the corner stone was officiated by the Rt. Rev. Célestine de la Hailandière, Bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, with Bishop Kenrick in attendance.

The work went slowly and Father Forestal died in 1847 before the work was completed. Visitations by other priests occurred for a few months until a new pastor was appointed. Reverend James O’Kane became the first “resident pastor” and was well acquainted with the parish. He was an employee of Friend’s Asylum before entering the seminary. It was under Father O’Kane’s first year that the completion of the church was accomplished and the first mass was held. Until then the people of St. Joachim’s worshiped at another church, St. Ann’s, until the building was complete. In 1849 cholera desolated the area. Father O’Kane, along with the Rev. Henry S. Spackman, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, threw aside their own safety and tended to those who fell victim to the disease and administered to the dying.

Father O'Kane died in April 1852. The first high mass of the church was sung at his funeral and he was laid to rest in the cemetery in the rear of the church. He was succeeded by the Rev. F. X. Villanis, who remained until the autumn of 1856. Under Father Villanis the pastoral house was built. It was a rough-cast house with a gable end and a slanted roof facing Church Street. The only back building was an open shed. The residence cost $3,800.

The Rev. John McGovern then became pastor. It was under Father McGovern that the Old Baptist Church, now owned by the United Presbyterian Church standing on Penn Street, was purchased. He converted it to a parochial school tended by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart. The Baptist Church was built in 1807 on what was then the corner of Edwards and Pine Streets. The purchase took place March 12, 1863 at a cost of $2,400. The present school was erected in 1885.

Also under Father McGovern’s charge the Convent in which the Sisters resided was built at a cost of $13,000. A steeple was erected on the church building at a cost of $8,000. The builder of the steeple was Edward Allen, who later became an undertaker. The mason was John Peters. The tower would stand 250 feet and during its construction one of the slate roofers fell from the structure to his death.

Smaller congregations grew up in the outlining areas of the parish and were tended to by the priests of St. Joachim’s. These areas extended as far as Bustleton which was started by Father McGovern, and even farther to Jenkintown and included Fox Chase, Holmesburg, and Tacony. These smaller congregations would eventually break away from St. Joachim’s into their own parishes.

In 1872, Father Nicholas J. Walsh was appointed pastor. Under Father Walsh the congregation began to meet to discuss the building of a new church as the present church building had been condemned as unsafe and unfit for worship. The congregation had outgrown the building. The last Mass was said in the original building on September 15, 1873. A temporary chapel was built on the site of the present school building and the original church building was torn down. “A plan was provided for a stone structure of ample dimensions, of Gothic style, and having a basement and main stor(e)y.” The cost of the new church building was $90,000 and was planned by Edwin Forrest Durang and assisted by a fellow Frankford resident Frank Watson. The funds raised for the new church building even included donations by non-Catholics. In June 1874, the corner stone was laid. The work again went slowly and was not complete by the time Father Walsh’s duties as pastor were completed. In 1877, he was transferred to St. Charles Borromeo and was succeeded by Father John P. Byrne, who was an assistant in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

Under Father Byrne the new church was ready for dedication in October 1880. Archbishop Wood officiated at the dedication. With no further use of the temporary chapel, it was torn down and the present school building as we know today was built. At the time it was known as the finest school building in the city. Father Byrne also had the wall along the church yard on Griscom Street built by Edward Flynn for a cost of $3,000. Unlike a few of his predecessors, Father Byrne was able to see his work completed. He died on August 22, 1891 and was followed by Father Francis P. Fitzmaurice.

The 20th century until the Oblates

At this time the congregation numbered 4,000 souls. The boundaries of the parish had shrunk from the former far-reaching borders. That year the parish was stated to be south to Venango, North to Dark Run Lane (now Cheltenham Ave.) and west to Frankford Creek. On July 29, 1902 Father Fitzmaurice arranged with Mayer and Co. of New York for stained glass windows to be installed. The windows were as follows: Two windows in the sanctuary at the cost of $450 each and 24 windows in the nave of the church, each to have the single picture of a saint with rich gothic canopy at $220 each. The total cost of the work was $6,180.

Under Father Fitzmaurice many improvements and additions were made to the church. The bell tower was constructed by a local contractor, James T. Murphy. The tower was completed in 1912. It was this bell that became a major part of everyone’s lives in Frankford. It is told that at 7am when the bell rang, everyone knew it was time to get up and go to work; at noon when the bell rang, lunch, and at 6pm when the bell rang again the family would gather and share dinner together. In 1914, a marble altar, wainscoating, flooring and rail were added. The stone was supplied by the Vermont Marble Company.

In 1915, electricity was added to the church. Father Fitzmaurice also remodeled the rectory. No records exist of who had the pipe organ installed, but it was there before electricity. The organ was rebuilt in 1973, at a cost of $5,000. It was believed to have been the work of Theodore Knauff, a famous 19th century organ builder. Father Fitzmaurice didn't stop with renovations. A new convent was built at Church and Penn Streets. This meant more debt but Father Fitzmaurice did so at the cost of $79,570 and it was completed in 1922. In 1925 at the age of 77, Father Fitzmaurice died. He is buried behind the church. Father Fitzmaurice was also responsible for the purchase of the remaining land around the school from the Baptist church in 1895. This land became the school playground after it was graded. The current flagpole in the school yard was installed in 1898. Presented by the literary organization of the parish at a cost of $450 it stood 150 tall.

For the next quarter century through the Great Depression and the Second World War the church was pastored by a man best known as an educator and the builder of schools. Rev. John B. Dever served until his death in 1950. Just as the man before him, Father Dever would make repairs and renovations. Under him the church celebrated the parish’s 100th anniversary. For this he made extensive repairs throughout the month of February 1943.

Following Father Dever in 1950 was a Kensington native, Father Thomas A. McNally. Under Father McNally the rectory again saw renovations and he was the first pastor to hold Catholic Youth Organization dances for the teens of the parish.

Father James A. Donnelly would follow. A West Philadelphia native, Father Donnelly was once an assistant at St. Joachim and left to establish St. Joseph’s parish in Green Ridge. Under Father Donnelly the rectory was refurnished and brought up-to-date.

In 1954 the Rev. Francis A. Fagan came to serve as pastor. Under Father Fagan the debt for the rectory was paid off. Father Fagan would remain as pastor Emeritus of St. Joachim’s until his death on October 13, 1972. It was during his term that Second Vatican Council occurred and many changes came to ways Catholics would worship.

In June 1971, St. Joachim’s welcomed their new pastor, Father William L. Cotterall. Where changes to the liturgy were seen under Father Fagan the changes to the church as a result of Second Vatican came under Father Cotterall. With the liturgical changes it was evident that the church was no longer adequate. Revamping of the sanctuary included placing the altar, the pulpit and the baptismal font closer to the people, painting of the vestibule, removal of the old confessionals and installation of two combination confessionals. Also conference rooms with air conditioning were built with speakers so that parents of little children could participate in Mass. The altar railings were removed and the floors were carpeted to keep the church warmer in the winter. Father Cotterall also made $60,000 worth of renovations to the school building. Father Cotterall remained pastor until June 29, 1978 when he was reassigned to Nativity B.V.M.

The Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and the 1979 fire

It was also this date, June 29, 1978 that a great change came to the St. Joachim parish. Facing a dwindling supply of priests the Archdiocese could not supply priests to the church. On this day The Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales came to administer the church. With them came a man that stood 6’4” (195 cm) and was of Italian-American descent born in Wilmington Delaware. Father Anthony F. Silvestri came to St. Joachim’s and introduced a new era with his assistant Father John Bradunas. The toughest task to that time for Father Silvestri was to help the people of the parish along with the transition from diocesan priests. Father opened his door to everyone stating that his home was everyone’s home. The parish was renewed and strengthened like never before. But it would be just a couple of weeks short of a year on June 8, 1979 that Father Silvestri and Father Bradunas would face what no other pastor or priest of the parish had to face. On a sunny day which just happened to be Father Silvestri’s birthday business was as usual until the smell of smoke was noticed. Father Silvestri was returning from a lunch when he and a Mr. Glenn Martin saw the smoke. Father Silvestri jumped out of the car and started to run thinking that the parish house was on fire. Passing someone on the street he asked what the smoke was coming from. “The church!!!” they said. Father asked what church. “Your church father!!”

A few hard months later, on December 19, 1979 it was decided that the church would not be rebuilt and would be demolished as well as the parish house. From the laying of the cornerstone in June 1874 until that June day in 1979 the church of St. Joachim’s stood as one of Frankford’s greatest landmarks. But as this parish and neighborhood has shown over and over again a stumbling block may break their hearts but it does not stop their drive. With services being held in the school, plans for a new church were being made. An alter, sections which would be placed in the new chapel, mosaics, fixtures, marble statues and some of the stained glass windows were saved for the new church. On May 11, 1980 groundbreaking took place. The new St. Joachim’s church building was underway. The architect hired to do the work was Ronald Knabb of Knabb Associates.

There are three arches that serve as the entrance into the church courtyard which itself serves as the entrance into the chapel and the church. The center is the chapel and to the right of the building is the parish house which serves as home to the clergy. The outside walls of the church are brick construction, the floors are terrazzo. A hot air heating system, an air conditioning system, restrooms and three meeting rooms named after three former pastors were built. The three pastors for whom the meeting rooms were named are Father Fitzmaurice, Father Fagan, and Father O’Kane. The pews are made of oak and seat approximately 600 to 650 people.

There is a hand carved statue of St. Joachim in the foyer, also a hand carved crucifix at the altar. The tiles in the Sanctuary are Florida earthstone and the tiles for the vestibule, narthex and church are Florida tile. There are hand carved statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother as well as hand carved Stations of the Cross. The hand carving was done by Bob McGovern, a paraplegic. Total cost of the new church building and furnishings totaled 1.9 million dollars.

On December 13, 1981, a mass of dedication was held and the church as we know it today became a new landmark in Frankford.

Father Silvestri would continue to pastor the church introducing many new traditions such as the St. Patrick’s Pageant, Santa Lucia Pageant, Blessing of the children’s Easter baskets, Rose Sunday, Blessing of the Animals, and monthly Spaghetti Dinners. Father Silvestri would finish through the 1980s as pastor and would return to his home of Wilmington, Delaware with a new assignment.

Former pastors

*Rev. Dominick Forestal
*Rev. James O’Kane
*Rev. F.X. Villanis
*Rev. John M. McGovern
*Rev. Nicholas J. Walsh
*Rev. John P. Byrne
*Rev. Francis P. Fitzmaurice
*Rev. John B. Dever
*Rev. Thomas McNally
*Rev. James A Donnelly
*Rev. Francis A. Fagan
*Rev. William Cotterall
*Rev. Anthony F. Silvestri
*Rev. Thomas Palko
*Rev. Gene McBride
*Rev. Robert L. Bazzoli

ee also

*Archdiocese of Philadelphia

External links

* [ Archdiocese of Philadelphia website]


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