Rooted In Faith

Humble Beginnings   

  "I had never heard of Glenolden." This was the initial reaction of Father George Orr when he was informed of his appointment as founding pastor of Saint George Parish in suburban Delaware County. Monsignor Joseph A. Whitaker, Chancellor of the Archdiocse of Philadelphia, had called Father Orr on the phone on June 2, 1923, and asked him if he would assume the duties of the pastorate. Father Orr, at the time as Assistant Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, agreed to the new assignment at once. However, the official letter from Cardinal Dougherty did not arrive until June 6, 1923. It was on that day that Father Orr went to visit Father Josph P. Monville, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish, the parish from which St. George was being formed.

     The first order of business was to secure a temporary place to say Mass until property could be bought and buildings erected. This was done by obtaining permission to use Williamson Hall, coated on the second floor of an American Store at Chester Pike and Logan Avenue. The first Masses were celebrated at 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM on Sunday, June 10, 1923, only eight days after Father Orr's appointment. Collecton envelopes were distributed to the parishioners, and the first Sunday colleciton amounted to $88.16. During that same month, the first parish picnic was held. Thus began traditions of fun, friendship, and social gatherings, many of which continue to this day, and which are hallmarks of St. George Parish.

     All the activity, however, was not fun and games. The main purpose of the parish, the spitiual one, was also in evidence. The first death noted in the parish records was William Thomas Britt, who passed away in late June. On October 28, 1923, Father Orr celebrated the first two Baptisms. The children were William George Nulty and Angelina Rita Martin. Several weeks later, on November 17, 1923, the first marriage ceremony was celebrated. The newly married couple was John Copple and Laura Wallace.

     Father Orr could not rest securely with his early successes. He now had the difficult task of obtaining land on which to erect the parish buildings. In the 1920s, Glenolden was a Borough which was not very receptive to Catholics. Father Orr had to enlist the aid of his family to buy a property on Cooke Avenue so that he could have a place to live, for no one would sell a house to a Catholic priest. A plot of land 300 feet by 200 feet caught the eye of Father Orr. This property, which was bounded by Cooke, Lamont and Glen Avenues, seemed to be the ideal spot to buy. Fortunately, one of Father's friends, Carrie Campbell, had a cousin name John Metz who lived in Glenolden. Father Orr asked Mr. Metz to help him purchase the land. Having worked with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Mr. Metz had previous experience in acquiring land for the miles of track which had to be laid. Needless to say, this plot of land had to be bought secretly.

     The realtor engaged for the transactions was Mr. Melhourn. At that time, some local non-Catholics, on hearing that a Catholic Church was to be built in the community, dispatched a representative to "buy in" on the proposed site. This practice was one in which a buyer would purchase one or two lots of ground within a larger section of land desired to be bought by an apponent. This practice would prevent the use of the remaining tract by the rival, in this case, the Catholic Church. John Metz noted that someone followed him everyday during the summer of 1923 to discover the exact locaton of the property the Church wanted, so that an individual cound "buy in" and prevent the remaining land from being used by the Catholic Church.

     Mr. Melhourn was apparently in agreement with the non-Catholic element of the community. When he discovered that Mr. Metz was a "front" for St. Goerge Parish, he went to his house and offered to return the initial deposit. John Metz was not to be put off, however. He immediatly contacted a friend who worked in the Deeds Department of the Delaware County Court House in Media. As a result, Mr. Mitchell recorded the purchase of the Lamont-Cooke-Glen Avenue tract of land on Saturday, August 18, 1923, a day on which the Deeds Department was normally closed. When Monday rolled around, Mr. Melhourn was faced with a "faith accompli" and was not so energetic as to wage a breach of contract court battle to regain the property. The anti-St. George threat had been beaten back.

     Father Orr now began the financial part of his endeavors. On Monday, August 20, 1923, he borrowed $30,000 from the Delware County Trust Company in Chester. He had to go to that city, since none of the local banks would have anything to do with this purchase. It was decided to put the two houses already on the property to immediate use. The Cooke Avenue house was converted into the rectory, while the Lamont Avenue house was designated as a temporary church until a larger, more permanent house of worship could be built. The parishioners now began to renovate their new church. In their free time, after many hard hours or work during the day, the people of St. George Parish began the task of putting an extension on the house. Meanwhile, the interior of the structure was made ready for liturgical ceremonies.

     Father Orr decided to begin using the house for daily Mass and, on October 8, 1923, at 7:30 AM, the first Mass was celebrated in the new location. Since the exterior was not yet finished, and there was not enough room for the Sunday congregation, Mass continued to be celebrated in the hall atop the American Store. Several weeks later, the thirty-foot extension to the old house was completed. On Thanksgiving Day, November 29, 1923, Father Orr celebrated Mass in the new church. Three days later, the first Sunday Masses were celebrated. St. George Parish now had its own church, and no longer needed to be tenants. Father Orr recorded this fact by simply saying, "Last Thursday was a glorious day. This is now your church."

     The parish was not to rest on its laurels, however, with the opening of the renovated house/church. There was a definate need for a more permanant house of worship, as well as a school. Father Orr visited several of his priest friends and received permission to take up a collection to obtain funds, which would pay off the parish interest, $600 per quarter, and set a little aside for new construction. In November 1924, he recieved the sum of $1,000 from St. John the Evangelist Church in Philadelphia, and two weeks later the parishioners of Our Lady of Victory Church matched that amount. The main burden of fund raising fell upon the men and women of St. George Parish, who were equal to the task. It was because of the hard work and dedication of the parishioners that so much had been accomplished.

     The spiritual life of the parish also continued to grow. In his census of 1924, Father Orr listed 97 families and 446 people as members of the Church. During the next year, Reverend Francis C. Hagadon, S.J., conducted the first Parish Mission.

     The plans for a new building began to take shape. Armed with $1,000 collected by the Holy Name Society, and a promise of $1,200 more per year, Father Orr now accepted bids on a new combination church and school building. The final figure of the contract was $100,765 and the architect was Paul E. Getz. Ground was broken on Sunday, July 25, 1926, during an outdoor High Mass. The weather was cloudy early that morning, but the sun appeared during the Mass. Father Orr was the celebrant while Father Denis Coghlan, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Essington, preached the sermon. Immediatly after the Mass, Father Orr turned the first spade of earth and the new building was underway. The structure was modeled on West Catholic Boys' High School. It is through that Father Orr had plans for making this building the first Catholic High School in Delaware County.

     On November 7, 1926, Dennis Cardinal Dougherty came to lay the cornerstonre for the new building. The Cardinal was met at the train station by a large honor guard in formal attire, and escorted to the rectory. Included in the parade was the St. George Boys' Band. The stress between Cathlics and Protestants had apparently begun to ease, for members of other churches were seen accompanying Cardinal Dougherty in the escort to the rectory.

     At the Mass celebrating the laying of the cornerstone, Father Coghlan once again preached the sermon. In his sermon, Father Coghlan seemed to be intent on allaying the fears of the residents of Glenolden about the patriotism of the local Catholics. He stated: "This is a patriotic work, because on this cornerstone will be built an edifice in whose halls will be imparted to your children, instruction, morality, and religions-that trinity of pillars whereon rest the security and longevity of any government. Here your children's hearts, as well as minds, will be trained by instruction and morality sweetened and heightened by their religious of Jesus Christ, which will engender in them the twin loves of God and Country, the characteristic traits of a true patriot."

Growing Through Change

     Work now proceeded at a faster pace and in May 1927, the building was completed. On May 22, 1927, the little temporary church was the site of a parochial Mass for the last time. Father Orr was somewhat nostalgic. As he closed his first church, he stated: "On November 29, 1923, Thanksgiving Day, the nine o'clock Mass was the first in this chapel. We have had joys and sorrows, blessings and disappointments. May blessings fall upon the brides who have entered it on their happy day. May grace favor the babies who have been carried to it. May God have mercy on the dead who have lain in it. We leave it next Sunday, not as happily as we expected, when all is said and done. this is ours-yours and mine. This is our first child of faith. These low ceilings, these darkened walls, have a personal history for us and its very smallness, I think, has brought us closer together-priest and people. We look foward to a permanent home for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, a place from which He may never be removed-a place where we might kneel in silent aodration before Him. You have put your hands to the plow. Your work is before you and your children's children. Go on with your valor and God bless you.

     One week later, on May 29, 1927, the new church was opened to its parishioners. The good Catholics of Folcroft and Glenolden now had a place of worship, which would be used for the next twenty-eight years.

     September of that same year brought more important events to St. George Parish. On September 6, 1927, the parish school was opened with an enrollment of 146 pupils. The Sisters of St. Joseph had accepted the task of educating the community's youth. Initailly, three nuns were assigned to St. George - Mother Mary of Calvary, Sister Agnes Marie, and Sister Teresa of Avila. The sisters' covent was the old church, which had been refurbished during the summer.

     The official dedication of the new church-school complex took place on September 29, 1927. The new building consisted of an auditorium on the first floor and a combination church with a capacity of 500 and school with four classrooms on the second floor.

     His Excellency Bishop Michael Crane, the Auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia served as delegate for Cardinal Dougherty.

     Following the celebration of High Mass by Father Orr, the Bishop blessed the building and then administered the Sacrament of Confirmation for the first time in the parish auditorium.

     On June 22, 1928, the first commencement exercies were held for St. George School. A total of thirteen students was graduated. From that class, there were three religous vocations: Rev. Richard J. Griffin, Sister Marie George, SSJ (Kathryn Connor) and Sister Marie Martha, I.H.M. (Helen Fleming).

    The parish continued to grow. As a result, on Friday, June 8, 1951, ground was broken for a new convent, with a chapel and living quarters for fourteen sisters. The old convent would be converted into additional classrooms to meet the ever-expanding size of the student population. On the eve of Thanksgiving 1951, the new convent was ready for occupancy.

     On June 13, 1954, ground was broken for a new church. On August 15, 1955, the last Mass was said in the old church. The weekday Masses during the next week were celebrated in the convent chapel. The next Sunday, August 21, 1955 Mass was offered for the first time in the present church. The old church was converted into extra classrooms, while two other classrooms were enlarged. The old convent, an orignal building on the 1923 site, was razed to make room for a parking lot.

     Archibhsop O'Hara solemnly dedicated the new church on April 18, 1956 The rectory was now the oldest building in the entire parish complex. It had been in use by the priests since 1923. As a result, in 1960, the present day rectory was completed which was modernized, well-equipped, and contained office space.

Sadly, after over 80 years of providing Catholic education to the residents of Glenolden and Folcroft, St. George School closed in 2005. Saint George Parsh School graduated future doctors, lawyers, professors, accountants, mothers, fathers, religous sisters and priests. It had been an integral part of so many lives. As of the closing of the school in June 2005, the total number of graduates reached 2,761. The memory of Saint George Parish School will live on in the hearts and lives of all those who were privileged enough to walk its halls and sit within its classrooms.

     Parishioners now have the option of attending other area Catholic schools. The school building still remains and is currently leased by the Upper Darby School District where continuing public education through the Walter Senkow Elementary School is thankfully being provided to children in First Grade through Fifth Grade. Our Parish Hall is still utilitzed for various parish functions, Bingo and the Pot of Gold Program. The school building is also used for Parish Religious Education classes where children in Grades One through Eighth are instructed in our faith and prepared for the sacraments of initiation.

     Before Saint George Parish was built, another parish community was formed. On March 6, 1892, the cornerstone for Holy Spirit Parish in Sharon Hill was ready to be set and blessed by Archbishop Ryan. The "little church" was Gothic in style and situated on the same ground as the present church. There was a seating capacity of 250and the cost of construction was a mere $14,000.

     Dedication ceremonies for the new Holy Spirit Church took place on Sunday, November 18, 1894 with Archbishop Ryan officiating.

     During the pastorate of Reverend James H. Gavin, from July 1898 to December 1906, a parochial school was opened in a house at 220 Sharon Avenue on February 12, 1901. The sisters of the Holy Child who have been providing religious instructions to local childen at thier convent since the year 1881, now staffed the first parish school of Holy Spirit. Eighteen pupils enrolled under the directorship of Mother Mary Juliana, SHC, Principal and Siter Mary Wilfred SHCJ, who  was a novice and taught Mathmatics. There were six students in the first graduatoin class of 1902.

      When the Sharon Avenue address became too crowded and larger quarters became necessary, two unfinished houses on East Coates Street were obtained and adapted for schol use. Enrollment continued to grow and a report dated 1906 states that there were 104 school children. Total Catholic population at that time was noted at 700. A house on the present site of the school ws purchased for school use and after extensive renovations had been complted, Archbishop Ryan blessed the building in 1906.

     Spirtual growth of the family blossomed and enrollment continued. And so, in July 1917, the cornerstone of a new school buildling was laid by the Right Reverend John J. McCort, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia. June nine months after the groundbreaking, on January 6, 1918, the dedication of the school was held.

     The Sisters of the Holy Child donated a bell, which was christened, "Little Raphael," to the new school. Until the late 1940's, the bell signaled the opening and closing of each school day.

     Holy Spirit continued to flourish and yet new parishes also grew up all around them. In 1925, St. George Parish claimed one-quarter of their parishioners. Changing boundary lines in 1919 caused the loss of an additional seventy-five parishioners to Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Darby and St. Joseph in Collingdale. But despite frequent reassignment of parisioners, Holy Spirit continued to grow. In one year alone, it was reported that 115 new homes had been built in the borough. New homes meant new families and by 1933 the population of the town had grown to 3,825.

     As an indication of the continued growth and good works being done at Holy Spirit Parish, in 1949, a the cost of $180,000 an addition to the school and an auditorium for Masses was erected. Then, on November 18, 1961, the new church, which is present today, was dedicated. Painstaking thought to all of the adorments is evident throughout the church. Specific explainations of each altar, shrine and stained glass window are defined in the dedication booklet. Particularly notable are the beautiful wood carved panels, which depict the domestic life of the Holy Family and which are located above the side altars immediately to the right and left of the main altar of the church. These panels were designed by Mother Mary Borgia of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, a fitting tribute from the good sisters who have been the mainstay of the parish school.

      For many years thereafter, Holy Spirit Parish continued to provide its parisihoners with a Catholic education, in addition to the many Eucharistic, communal and spiritual benefits that a thriving parish community has to offer. But, sadly, due to the onslaught of changing demographics and a weakened economy, Holy Spirit School finally had to close its doors in 2002. This was followed by the complete closing of Holy Spirit Parish in June of 2014 and its merge with St. George Parish in Glenolden. 

Looking to the Future 

     Although bittersweet, it appears we have now come full circle. The church from which St. George Parish was originally formed has now become one with St. George. Our original namesake, the Holy Spirit, was surely watching over all of us, indeed! We have created a "new" Parish Community where we remain today, still rooted in faith, strengthened by hope and growing in love.

     We will continue to strive to build up the Kingdom of God through ongoing evangelization, by sharing time treasured traditions and community events, by reaching out to those who are in need, by visiting and praying for our sick and homebound, by strengthening families through community involvement, ongoing catechesis and, most importantly, through the administering of sacraments, with the Eucharist always being the center of all that we say and do. 

                            Saint George Church

              Holy Spirit Church