‘Firsts’ in the City of Independence

Philadelphia, the Birthplace of Religious Liberty

At lower left, Old St. Mary Church at 252 S. 4th Street was built in 1763 by Charles Johnson and was altered in 1782 and 1810-11. At right, Old St. Joseph’s Church was the first Catholic church in the city.
At lower left, Old St. Mary Church at 252 S. 4th Street was built in 1763 by Charles Johnson and was altered in 1782 and 1810-11. At right, Old St. Joseph’s Church was the first Catholic church in the city. (photo: By Beyond My Ken - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikicommons; By See below - Wiki Takes Philadelphia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikicommons; Shutterstock)

Philadelphia is a city of “firsts.” July 4, 1776, marked the first day of the new United States, when the Declaration of Independence was ratified at Independence Hall and where, a year earlier, George Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. This city was also where, in 1887, the U.S. Constitution was signed.

More than half a century earlier, in 1732, when construction began on Independence Hall, another major “first” was taking place 1,584 feet away. It would plant the seeds for many Catholic “firsts” for the city and the new country. Jesuit Father Joseph Greaton, a missionary from Maryland, was building a house in which to celebrate Masses privately, as was only allowed by English law.

Soon, Father Greaton built an addition onto the house — a new chapel. In 1733 he began holding the only public Masses in not only the new colonies but in the British empire because public Masses were illegal under the law. The case went to court in 1734. The result? The court had to allow the public Masses at this Philadelphia chapel because years earlier Queen Anne had approved William Penn’s Law of Liberty and Conscience, his Charter of Privileges for Philadelphia, which guaranteed religious freedom to “all who worshiped one God.” Founder Penn’s “City of Brotherly Love” was the first place in the colonies to actually allow freedom of worship and where Mass was first celebrated legally. With this “first,” what was named St. Joseph’s Church became the birthplace of religious liberty in the colonies. In fact, this “first” continued until the American Revolution because Philadelphia was the only spot Catholics could worship at public Masses in the British colonies. Around this time, Mass was offered in Maryland, but the chapel-churches were attached to Jesuit houses or private homes, and there Mass was not offered publicly.

St. Joseph’s became the first Catholic church in the city, the first openly Catholic parish, and today it remains a parish at its original location (see related story in Travel). In 1757 the chapel was replaced with a larger edifice; then, in 1763, Old St. Mary Church was built around the corner, two blocks away, to be the “Sunday” church for this parish, with Old St. Joseph’s being the church designated for weekday services.

Old St. Mary Church is also part of the history of America’s birthday. On July 4, 1779, the first public religious commemoration of the Declaration of Independence took place here. Members of the first Continental Congress officially attended, one of the four times they attended services at this church from 1777 to 1781. George Washington was present, and the first president worshipped at St. Mary’s on at least two occasions. Again, in 1781, a Mass was celebrated in thanksgiving after British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Washington.

In 1810, Old St. Mary’s was named the first cathedral in the newly created Diocese of Philadelphia.

In its cemetery adjacent to the church, Commodore John Barry, the father of the American Navy, is buried along with his family. Barry was a devout parishioner at both Old St. Joseph’s and Old St. Mary’s. Barry was named the first captain, or commander, commissioned by the Continental Congress’ Marine Committee. President Washington appointed Barry to be head of the new U.S. Navy, stating he trusted in Barry’s “patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities.” A fervent Catholic who read Bible passages to his crews, Barry was the first to be named “Commodore.”

Another St. Joseph’s parishioner buried at St. Mary’s is Gen. Stephen Moylan, Washington’s first secretary and commissary general of the Continental Army. Another parishioner is Philadelphia merchant Thomas Fitzsimons, an early patriot serving in the Continental Congress of 1774 and the first Catholic picked for public office in Pennsylvania. After America’s victory, he became one of only two Catholics to become a framer of the Constitution.

Another devoted parishioner buried here is Mathew Carey, who, in 1790, published the Douay-Rheims Bible, the first Catholic version of the Bible printed in America. It was then also known commonly as the “Carey bible.”

Jesuit Father Robert Molyneux, pastor of St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s during the Revolution, was also responsible for Catholic publishing “firsts.” He published catechisms in 1785 and 1788, making him the first American known to edit a catechism. At the same time, he directed the publication in 1787 of the first Catholic prayer books in America plus the publication of the first hymnbook of Catholic music, consisting of litanies, hymns, anthems and other compositions sung in churches. He is considered the father of Catholic publishing in America.

Father Molyneux was also part of that first Catholic 4th of July religious commemoration in 1779 at St. Mary’s and later the Te Deum hymn of praise of God in 1781 in thanksgiving for the victory at Yorktown. As pastor of St. Joseph’s-St. Mary’s, by 1781, he established St. Mary’s elementary school, the first parochial school in the United States.

On a different note, Jesuit Father Leonard Neale, one of the priests of Old St. Joseph’s, established the first Catholic orphanage in the city to care for all children orphaned by Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

As the new country grew, so did the Catholic “firsts” in Philadelphia.

The 1789 clergy house attached to Old St. Joseph’s Church on Willings Alley became the home to the new diocese’s first bishops. (The church actually did not officially take on the addition of “Old” to the name St. Joseph’s until around 1848.)

In the 19th century, Jesuit Father Felix Joseph Barbelin spent much of his priestly life until his death at Old St. Joseph’s, placing him at the top of the list for serving the longest pastorate — a first of sorts. 

He replaced the existing church in 1839 with the one that is still the edifice for its vibrant parish. In 1851 he founded St. Joseph’s College, the first Catholic college in the city, adding floors to the clergy house for the college, which today exists elsewhere in the city. 

Father Barbelin was the college’s first president. He initiated the founding of Philadelphia’s first Catholic hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital; founded a Catholic school for African Americans; established the St. Joseph Society for Irish immigrants, and for Italian immigrants he founded St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi in South Philadelphia, the first Italian national church in America. He also founded St. Joseph’s Sunday School for children throughout the city to teach them the faith. For many years it enrolled more than a thousand pupils.

In 1851, at Old St. Joseph’s, Father Barbelin formed the first St. Vincent de Paul Society. During these years Father Barbelin also established the first sodalities in the city. The Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary organized in 1841 at Old St. Joseph’s was the first one outside the sodalities in European Jesuit colleges.

In 1853, St. John Neumann, bishop of Philadelphia, introduced the 40 Hours Devotion for the whole diocese so each parish would participate sometime during the year. 

This “first” for Philadelphia and the new country spread fruitfully. In 1866, the bishops meeting in council in Baltimore approved the 40 Hours Devotion for all dioceses in the United States.

On June 19, 1977, Philadelphia’s Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann became the first male saint of the United States when Pope St. Paul VI canonized him. 

Then, in 2000, Pope St. John Paul II canonized native Philadelphian St. Katharine Drexel as the first saint who was born a U.S. citizen. (Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized in 1975, but she was born in New York before the Declaration of Independence and therefore a British subject at birth. Before this, in 1946, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was the first U.S. citizen canonized, but she was born in Italy.) And with both entombed in the city, Philadelphia is the only city in the country to lay claim to having two of its own saints enshrined there. 

By the 20th century, in Philadelphia’s northwest section known as Germantown, the Miraculous Medal Perpetual Novena originated on Dec. 8, 1930, at Mary’s Central Shrine in the Church of the Immaculate Conception. It was 100 years after Mary appeared to St. Catherine Labouré and later gave her the medal she herself designed.

From that first Monday evening service, the novena grew rapidly, as reports of answered prayers poured in. 

Soon, other pastors asked permission to begin the novena. Now, thousands of churches here and abroad join in the devotion started at Mary’s Central Shrine by Vincentian Father Joseph Skelly. Never have the Monday novena services been broken in all these years. Even when the entire city was shut down by a 1995 blizzard, the devotion went on, although not with the usual numbers of people.

Quite appropriate for this Year of St. Joseph is one more “first.” 

The Philadelphia Register of Historic Places has honored only three individual paintings on its extensive list of properties. Painted by 19th-century artist Filippo Costaggini, the three adorn two churches. St. Joseph and Our Mother of Consolation are both housed at St. Augustine’s Church, and The Angelic Exaltation of St. Joseph Into Heaven graces Old St. Joseph’s, where all the Catholic “firsts” began.