Last Mass at St. Francis in Germantown

 

Congregants attend the final Mass at St. Francis of Assisi in Germantown | Photo: Theresa Stigale

The morning of Sunday June 24th dawned bright blue in Germantown, though hot enough that churchgoers sweated under their formal clothes as they streamed toward St. Francis of Assisi Church.

Police SUVs were parked near the intersection of Greene and Logan, where St. Francis’ domed steeple looms over the handsome rowhouses and stepped Victorian twins that comprise the neighborhood. Shuttle buses filled with attendees crept through the slight, inclined streets packed with cars. Notably, many bore New York, New Jersey and Delaware plates.

A middle-aged woman in her Sunday best, smoking a cigarette, called out to one of the officers minding the procession streaming towards the church.

“Look at this handsome cop! Can you believe how handsome this guy is?” she said as she embraced the gray-haired police officer.

Reunions and tears at St. Francis of Assisi in Germantown | Photo: Theresa Stigale

Roots run deep for the morning’s worshipers. Most grew up in the neighborhood in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when this section near Wayne Junction, known to some as the Brickyard, was a working-class Irish and Italian area dotted with several Catholic institutions.

As people grouped around the steps of the church, there was the atmosphere of a high school reunion, as former neighbors and old friends embraced after decades apart, and prepared for a mass that would see every pew occupied for the first time in recent memory.

But the reason for their assembly was a somber one. The St. Francis of Assisi Parish was holding its final mass after 113 years of ministry, as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia prepares to merge St. Francis and nearby Immaculate Conception into St. Vincent de Paul, on the other side of the neighborhood. According to the Diocese, St. Francis’ parish population fell 73% between 2006 and 2010, with just over 100 adherents regularly attending weekend mass in the massive church building.

The altar at St. Francis of Assisi in Germantown | Photo: Theresa Stigale

The neighborhood has been increasingly populated with black residents of a generally Protestant background. They replaced the predominantly white, Catholic population whose departure from the Philadelphia (along with the aging of those who stayed) greatly diminished the parish population in recent decades.

Feelings amongst the alumni were of sadness and nostalgia, but certainly not surprise.

“There’s dwindling people in this parish while some of the parishes in the suburbs are expanding. But it’s still sad, it’s history,” said Ed O’Neill, of Cape May, who lived on Sylvania St. until 1978.

“I lived here and I loved this place. This is where people came close to Christ, came close as a community. This was a thriving community and everybody knew everybody. It was totally unlike today where people don’t even know their neighbors,” he added.

Celebrating the final Mass at St. Francis of Assisi in Germantown | Photo: Theresa Stigale

Susan Landers, who lived on Wyneva St. into the 1980s and now resides in Brooklyn, says that although she is not a practicing Catholic today, her experience at the church shaped her sense of morality.

“I feel like it really shaped my ethos and was a big contributor to my sense of social justice. The teachings I heard as a child were very much of doing unto others as you would have done unto you, the importance of taking care of the sick and the poor, the aged and the infirm,” said Landers.

Landers recalled her neighborhood as “lower income” and said that the parish was already shrinking and aging during her childhood in the 70s.

“These were morals that came from Catholicism and were particularly resonant for me in that neighborhood. It wasn’t empty rhetoric; there were lots of poor people, there were lots of sick people and they needed assistance, and the church was saying we should treat them like we want to be treated ourselves. That was really important to me,” she said.

The neighborhood outside St. Francis of Assisi in Germantown | Photo: Theresa Stigale

The church’s few current parishioners regarded the closing with a much more powerful sense of loss and even anger.

“Most of the people feel betrayed,” said Gary Sylvester, who has been with St. Francis for 15 years. He said that though parishioners would accept the move, many thought that St. Francis’ larger building, adjacent school structures and parking lots would have made it a natural location for a new, centralized Germantown parish. Sylvester said he thought St. Vincent’s had been chosen because it was older and its larger congregation, who are mostly come from outside of Germantown, brought more money to the collection plate.

“We have the least numbers of people of just about of any city parish. We do understand it, they wanna consolidate and there’s a shortage of priests,” said Sylvester, adding that “a lot of deaths” in recent years had taken a toll on the parish.

He added, “We take the blame for it, as Catholics. We didn’t evangelize enough.”

Many parishioners lament the closing of St. Francis of Assisi in Germantown | Photo: Theresa Stigale

Sylvester, who lives Glenside and described himself as a one-time “church shopper”, said he was drawn to St. Francis after trying out other churches because of the sense of family.

“There’s just something about this church, the people. They were very hospitable and we fell in love with the people. When my father died out in Bucks County, half the church showed up, which meant a lot,” he said.

Sylvester added that almost everyone in the parish planned to migrate to St. Vincent’s, but as he stood amongst the swirling crowd of former parishioners, he worried about losing the tight knit community at St. Francis.

“We’re trying to be upbeat about it. It’s just going to be a problem of fitting in,” he said.

A diverse group gathered for the last Mass at St. Francis | Photo: Theresa Stigale

Others were less sanguine. Dispensing snacks and beverages in the more commonly used and modest “lower church”, below the crowded and ornate hall above, Helen Green voiced resentment towards the flood of long absent alumni.

“You see how many people are up there? If those people had been here before we wouldn’t be losing our church, would we? They could have said something.” said Green, who has been with St. Francis for 15 years, adding that she had heard a “millionaire” alumnus was paying to run shuttle buses to the church for ex-parishioners visiting during the final mass.

“He could have saved the church or said something when they were trying to close it,” she said.

The police presence, shuttle buses ferrying St. Francis alumni from a secured parking lot near LaSalle’s campus, the stark contrast between the alumni and spectating residents: all emphasized the underlying and unresolved issues of racial turmoil, poverty and crime that exacerbated demographic shifts in the neighborhood decades ago.

Names of former parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi in Germantown | Photo: Theresa Stigale

Yet, as the last mass proceeded, and congregants joined Father Gene Sheridan in a rendition of the gospel standard “Take Me Back”, and the church resounded with an energy that had been absent too long, there was a sense of wholeness again. Of rightness, however fleeting.

Today the great building is silent. Its future uncertain, it stands as a memory to those who knew it, to all others as simply another gravestone to the endless procession of ethnic and religious groups that have arrived, indelibly shaped, and left the varying pieces of Germantown. Perhaps another flock is yet to come. Perhaps only ruin. Germantown has endured both.

St. Francis of Assisi in Germantown | Photo: Theresa Stigale

About the author

Ryan Briggs is a journalist who lives in West Philadelphia. A veteran of several economic development agencies in Philadelphia, Ryan has contributed to the Philadelphia City Paper, Next City and other fine, local publications. Follow him on Twitter at @rw_briggs.

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9 Comments


  1. Thank You for the story I grew up right accross the street from St Francis, my uncle owned the funeral home(Gillespie at that time) and we lived right next door at my grandmothers house, How sad to see that beautiful church close it was always important to my family. You did a great job on the story and I thnak you for it

    • Mary, My wife and I attended the last mass. I presume that Fr. Gillespie was your uncle. He grew up with my parents, and he married my wife and I back in 1974.

  2. Nice coverage. Our, (my wife and I) only correction is that this location was never part of brickyard. Brickyard is on the east side of Germantown avenue. Not a big deal I guess, but in the interest of accuracy I thought I’d point it out. Maybe you will have other stories about the old neighborhood. You should check out “Germantown, your thoughts”. It’s a running blog of the neighborhood.

    • Hi,

      Everyone I know who lives in Brickyard is on the first couple of blocks west of the Avenue. I have friends who currently live right there on West Logan and West Rockland, who consider themselves in Brickyard, and who proudly exclaim that they have grown up in Brickyard, on those same streets. So maybe it’s in the East, but extends a bit into West Germantown right around there, too.

  3. MaryJean O'Byrne

    Thank you for telling our story. I feel like I have lost an old, dear friend. St. Francis of Assisi means alot to alot of people. I hope that all those affected by its closure will find another parish that will serve them as well as St. Francis did. I belong to a Catholic parish in Norristown that gives me the same feelings are love, friendship and comfort that St. Francis Church once provided. I’ll always be a St. Francis of Assisi girl, born, bred and forever true!

  4. Great story about a beautiful church. I went to St. Francis of assissi and was in the class of 1960. Some people, including Ryan Briggs the journalist, who wrote this article, are confused as to where brickyard is located. Hopefully, I can answer the question. I lived in brickyard at Bringhurst and Wakefield St.. My mother, grandparents, uncle, aunts and cousins lived there since the 1920`s.

    Brickyard is located east of Germantown av. The streets in question are Bringhurst, Ashmead, Collom, and Wister Streets from Germantown Av. to the railroad tracks.

    Brickyard was named after A.G. Collum brick manufacturer location at Washington lane and Sullivan St.
    Collum brick had a large brick storage facility adjacent to the railroad tracks near collum st.

    A few years ago I went to the Germantown historical center and discover that none of the employees at the center never heard of brickyard. I hope this will help anyone who has been confused about brickyard`s location. I hope this information will help anyone who has been confused about the real location of Brickyard.

  5. For clarification, The City of Philadelphia’s archive recognizes Brickyard as simply “the Irish section of Germantown”, and the name is rarely used today, so there is little official documentation on the subject. The “Brickyard” reference in this article came from a message board of the same name that organized transit to the mass. Many that attended this parish considered themselves to be a part of that neighborhood, even if they lived on the other side of the Avenue. I didn’t want to leave out the neighborhood name entirely, nor did I want to incorporate discussions about minor differences in neighborhood boundaries into the article, which often raise more questions than they answer, such as in this comment section.

    “Some” people do refer to the area as the Brickyard, others do not. Many who cared about St. Francis considered themselves a part of that neighborhood, others did not.

  6. Many years ago, the sculptor Eiko Fan and I made 14 small carved wood bas relief panels of the stations of the cross for the lower church, which were still in place when the church closed last week. Eiko also made two large carved wood sculptures – one of a mother and child and the other a father and son – which were once in the sculpture niches of the lower church and have long since disappeared. I wonder what will happen to the stations of the cross and where the two sculptures ended up. If anyone has any information, please let me know (jlpbaker@aol.com).

  7. I was in school there back in 69, still miss that place.

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