Old St. Joseph’s Church: Catholic From the Founding

Visit a historic edifice in Philadelphia

When America declared her independence in 1776, amid the goings-on at Independence Hall two blocks away, Old St. Joseph’s was already a flourishing parish.
When America declared her independence in 1776, amid the goings-on at Independence Hall two blocks away, Old St. Joseph’s was already a flourishing parish. (photo: Courtesy of Old St. Joseph’s Church)

Old St. Joseph’s Church in Philadelphia has quite a history since it was founded in 1733. 

Francis Drexel, the father of St. Katharine Drexel, was baptized here soon after his birth in 1824. Later, he was married in this church. Both of the city’s saints knew Old St. Joseph’s: Katharine Drexel and her sisters taught Sunday school here, and St. John Neumann visited the church as bishop of Philadelphia. Earlier, during the Revolutionary War years, the Marquis de Lafayette and Comte de Rochambeau worshipped at Old St. Joseph’s. Commodore John Barry, naval hero and father of the America Navy, also was married here and attended regularly.

Before America declared her independence in 1776 at Independence Hall two blocks away, Old St. Joseph’s was already a flourishing parish, after winning its independence in 1734 from the British law forbidding public Masses for Catholics. When Jesuit Father Joseph Greaton, a missionary who had arrived permanently, built a small chapel for public Masses, the court had to agree they were legal because the English crown had already approved William Penn’s Charter of Privileges allowing religious freedom in his “City of Brotherly Love.”

As the only place at the time where Catholics could worship openly in a public manner, Philadelphia became a center of the Catholic world in the colonies. 

A plaque in the church rightly states: When in 1733 / St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church / was founded and / Dedicated to the Guardian of the Holy Family / it was the only place / in the entire English-speaking world / where public celebration of / the Holy sacrifice of the Mass / was permitted by law.

St. Joseph’s — before the “Old” became part of the official name in the 1840s — flourished, so much so that, by 1757, the pastor succeeding Father Greaton had to build a larger church, plus an additional one, Old St. Mary Church, around the corner, to become the parish’s “Sunday” church. 

By 1785, an official record listed 1,000 Catholics in the city and 2,000 more in the surrounding areas. Old St. Joseph’s sacramental records register 8,850 baptisms before 1810.

In 1839, St. Joseph’s parish built a third church, the one still present with today’s active congregation. Built by parishioner John Darragh to fit the size of the property, the brick edifice’s dimensions had to be a very modest 75-by-65 feet. No steeple acts as a beacon, drawing people, nor does it have a highly visible façade. The entrance on Willings Alley, with its cobbled sections of street, is an archway flanked by the brick walls of Federal architecture, including the rectory. A plaque by the entry identifies Old St. Joseph’s as a national shrine. The archway opens to a courtyard at the entry to the church.

Following popular classic architecture, the compact sanctuary has a pair of Ionic fluted columns on either side. Directly behind them are matching fluted pilasters. All these pairs seem to effortlessly hold up the high pediment, which has a large arch sweeping from one side of the columns to the other. With its sculpted layers and rows of delicate dentils, the whole pediment and arch has a pleasing and composed effect for quiet and worship.

The columns and arched pediment beautifully frame both the tabernacle, which itself looks like a significant classical temple, and the huge framed painting of the Crucifixion above it. The Crucifixion was painted by parishioner Sylvano Martinez, a Portuguese artist, after one of Peter Paul Rubens’ works.

The first statue arrived in 1847. Carved in Rome, this statue of St. Joseph duly honors the parish’s patron, who rightly looks like a strong patriarch; in this depiction, in one hand, Joseph holds the Christ Child, and in his other hand, he clasps a staff blooming with a lily. The Child Jesus is shown raising his right hand to show everyone the cross he holds. This larger-than-life-size statue stands on a pedestal to the right of the altar.

Symmetrically on the opposite side of the sanctuary a statue of Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier stands tall on a matching pedestal. It did not appear in the church until 1923. Two smaller statues rest in the arched niches above the smaller side altars. To the right is the Sacred Heart, honored here since 1885. 

To the traditional left side for the Blessed Mother, there is a youthful Virgin Mary statue placed the same year. The tabernacles on both side altars echo the design of the central tabernacle.

Beautiful as the stained-glass windows are on both the floor and upper gallery levels, most are without figures, simply designed with patterns of yellow and gold. Being a poor parish during the 18th and 19th centuries, the church had to wait until 1886 for its four stained-glass scenes. One is the lunette, or curved window, framed by the pediment’s large arch. It pictures angels adoring the Eucharist in a monstrance. It was designed by Alfred Godwin & Co., a leading studio in the city that also designed the celestial scene of the Coronation of Mary, a large window near the sanctuary. Opposite it, on the right side, a pair of windows feature the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart.

More renovations took place at the same time. In 1885, the pastor was friends with St. Katharine Drexel’s father, Francis, a successful financier. Major renovations were beginning at the time. Drexel made what was called a “generous bequest” in 1885 that was used toward the renovation plus the building of a new school. Drexel funds also sustained Old St. Joseph’s though a half-century of challenging times. Among the renovations, Victorian-style seating replaced the original pews. 

The awe-inspiring highlight of those 1886 renovations is The Angelic Exaltation of St. Joseph Into Heaven, a circular neoclassical mural on the ceiling. The painting is the work of Filippo Costaggini, a well-known artist. His work appears in the city’s Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, and he also completed the frescoes in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

In 1904, to celebrate the golden anniversary of the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the church’s Marian Sodality groups financed renovation of the sanctuary with a full Communion rail of beautifully carved marble that has gentle “S” curves by the side altar, brass gates and mosaic tile floor, all of which remain.

Old St. Joseph’s history is rich enough to fill a book. (See a portion of its many “firsts” in the companion article.) Besides worshipping at Old St. Joseph’s, countless immigrants have found comfort, solace and help here over the centuries. 

“It wasn’t a ‘society’ church as much as a church for everyone,” notes longtime parishioner Tish Byrne. “It’s an exemplary urban immigrant parish. We served a very diverse population.”

 In 1755, for example, Jesuit Father Robert Harding, the second pastor, helped care for more than 480 needy French Arcadians who arrived in Philadelphia after the British exiled them from Nova Scotia. In 1794, Old St. Joseph’s welcomed Black and white refugees fleeing the revolution in Santo Domingo. They became parishioners, comprising the first congregation of Black Catholics in the city. Church records show the many marriages and baptisms that followed. From nearly the start of the church, African Americans were also baptized here.

During Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in which 10% of the city’s population died, Old St. Joseph’s priests ministered to everyone in need. Four of the priests died along with 335 fellow Catholics.

In 1840, Jesuit Father Felix Joseph Barbelin, a native of France, welcomed and helped African Americans to Sunday Mass and vespers. By 1859 this tireless pastor was at the forefront of opening a school for Black Catholics. He set up organizations for the many Irish and Italian immigrants and was known throughout the city as the “Apostle of the Sunday School.”

Since Emma Mary (Bouvier) Drexel, wife of Francis Drexel, lived close to Old St. Joseph’s before they married, she would have attended this church, and later, by word and example, she taught the Drexel daughters Christian charity.

The neighborhood declined in the early 20th century by the church’s 200th anniversary, yet, by mid-century, Old St. Joseph Church experienced a major renewal, as the whole area revived when Independence National Historical Park and the historic district was established. “Today people travel from out of state to our parish,” Byrne said. “They come (as parishioners) for Sunday Mass … from all over of the city and the suburbs.”

In 1959, a long-overdue honor came for this place that played a major role in establishing the Catholic Church in America. With approval of both houses of Congress, President Dwight Eisenhower declared Old St. Joseph Church a “National Shrine of Religious Liberty.”

VISIT  OldStJoseph.org