Saint Francis Xavier Parish in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was founded in the year of Our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred Thirty Nine. At the time of its establishment the diocese of Philadelphia was only a little more than three decades old and included all of Pennsylvania, western New Jersey and the state of Delaware.
The new Saint Francis Xavier Church was only the seventh Catholic Church to exist within the city.
The first Pastor of the parish, Father Michael O’Connor, was also rector of the Seminary then housed at 18th and Race Streets. He later was the founding bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
The site purchased for the new church was at the southwest corner of 25th and Biddle streets — not far from the grand front steps of today’s Philadelphia Museum of Art. The erection of the new church was directed by Father O’Connor.
At least part of the money used to build the church was raised by a city-wide collection. The cornerstone of the new church was laid on June 10, 1839. Mass was celebrated there
for the first time on Sunday, December 1, 1839.
The location of the new church was also very near to the Fairmount Water Works which drew water from the Schuylkill River and pumped it to a reservoir atop the hill where the Art Museum now stands. The Fairmount Water Works was the engineering marvel of its age and a renowned destination of tourists. Famous persons such as Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain are known to have toured and marveled at it. It is reasonable to assume that such persons also saw, and perhaps even visited, the nearby Saint Francis Xavier Church at 25th and Biddle Streets. Father O’Connor, in addition to being rector of the Seminary, served as the first pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish. He was succeeded by Father William Wheelan, the first resident pastor; Father Wheelan resided in the basement of the church.
In 1842, Father Patrick Rafferty
was appointed pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish. Father Rafferty took up residence in a small house at 402 North 25th Street, very near to the church. In 1844, during the anti-Catholic unrest which afflicted the United States, two Catholic churches and the homes of thirty Catholics were destroyed by fire in Philadelphia. Because of the unrest, by order of Bishop Kenrick, on Sunday, May 12, 1844, Catholic churches in the city were closed. Various accounts of the parish history indicate, however, that in spite of that situation, Mass was celebrated by Father Rafferty in our church on that day. During the month which followed, the church was guarded day and night by militia sent by the civil authorities, and by a number of parishioners who volunteered their services.
In 1845, Father Rafferty opened Saint Francis Xavier School in the basement of the church.
Father Rafferty died in March of 1863.
was appointed pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish in 1863. Prior to being appointed Pastor he had served for eight years as an assistant to Father Rafferty, and for a brief period after Father Rafferty’s death he served as Administrator of the parish. Almost immediately upon his appointment as pastor, Father Maginn began to make improvements to the parish property. He had erected a new rectory just south of the church; he added transepts, stained glass windows and a dome to the church. He also enlarged the galleries of the building. In spite of all the improvements, it soon became obvious that the rapidly expanding parish was outgrowing its church, and especially, its school. In the late 1860’s Father Maginn had constructed a three story brick school building
at the southeast corner of 24th and Green streets. He also purchased two adjoining houses which would eventually become the first St. Francis Xavier Parish convent for the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM).
The idea of a new church became imperative when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad decided to change the grade of its track which ran near the church at Biddle Street. Because tunneling was involved in the project, the blasting of rock was necessary. That process resulted in significant damage to both the church and the adjacent rectory. Father Maginn then purchased the land at 2321 Green Street, where he constructed a rectory (this building is now the residence of our Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri community). As soon as the rectory was completed, Father Maginn began to negotiate the purchase of property to the west of the new building. That site would be the site of our present church.
Father Maginn had secured three of the four properties needed when he suddenly became ill. On July 25, 1890, Father Maginn died at the new rectory.
Immediately after the death of Father Maginn, Reverend Michael Gleeson
was appointed pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish. Father Gleeson wasted no time in taking up the work of constructing a new church. The purchase of the final ground needed was completed by 1894; the ground was cleared and the digging of the new church’s foundations began that same year. On October 6, 1894, the corner-stone of the new church was laid by Archbishop Ryan. On December 18, 1898, the now completed church was dedicated by Archbishop Ryan and a Pontifical Mass was celebrated by Bishop Prendergast. At just about the time of the church’s dedication, Father Gleeson was afflicted with a form of paralysis that was finally to cause his death on January 25, 1904, after a long, painful illness. In March of 1904, Father Thomas F. Shannon
was appointed the sixth pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish.
It would be Father Shannon’s task to rally the parish in one of its most difficult moments. On March 31, 1906, a building then located at 24th and Wallace streets caught fire and was completely destroyed. During that event the fire managed to leap to the newly opened church
at Green Street and it too was severely damaged. The roof of the church was completely destroyed, and a great deal of damage was done to the interior when the roof fell.
Almost immediately after the fire, reconstruction of the church began. A temporary alter was erected in the school on Green Street and Mass was celebrated there until the Church reopened on April 5, 1908.
The cost of the reconstruction had been one-hundred thousand dollars. During the next seven years Father Shannon devoted much of his efforts to clearing away the debt the parish incurred during the reconstruction. He had almost completely succeeded at the time of his death on November 16, 1915.
The seventh pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish, Reverend Joseph F. O’Keefe,
was the first priest to serve in that position who was born in the United States. All six of his predecessors were immigrants from Ireland. During Father O’Keefe’s time as pastor, the population of the parish continued to grow. It was during his pastorate that the necessity of a new, larger school became clear. That new school was built at 24th and Wallace streets;
it opened in 1923. Father O’Keefe died on January 21, 1934, at the age of eighty-three.
In February of 1934, Father John J. McMenamin
became the eighth pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish. Father McMenamin’s time as pastor was made difficult by the impact of the Great Depression on our parishioners and our church. In spite of the difficulties, Father McMenamin labored faithfully to deal with those problems. While he was pastor, the old school on Green Street was razed as plans for a new Saint Francis Xavier Convent were being made. In 1939, Father McMenamin oversaw the centennial celebration
of the founding of the parish. On Sunday, December 2, 1939 – almost exactly one-hundred years from the first time – a Solemn Mass was celebrated in our church by Cardinal Dennis Dougherty.
On July 8, 1944, Father McMenamin left this life, having been pastor here for slightly over ten years.
born in Liverpool England, succeeded Father McMenamin as pastor in 1944. Early in his pastorate, Father Coghlan took up the task of the proposed new convent
at 24th and Green Streets. He rented a residence for the IHM Sisters near Rittenhouse Square so that the old convent could also be razed to make room for the new one. Father Coghlan traveled to the Rittenhouse residence daily to celebrate Holy Mass for the sisters. The new convent was dedicated and opened in August of 1949. Father Coghlan died at our parish rectory on October 4, 1958.
Father Joseph A. Kenny was named pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish upon Father Coghlan’s death. Father Kenny was a graduate of the Cathedral Parish School and Roman Catholic High School. For eight years he had served as a chaplain at Eastern State Penitentiary at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue. By the time of Father Kenny’s pastorate great changes were underway in the church and American society in general. The Second Vatican Council, which would bring about enormous change, was just beginning. Unfortunately, at about this time the number of Catholics who regularly attended Mass and supported their parishes began to decline sharply. Fewer women were entering religious communities such as the IHM. Additionally, by 1959 it had become unmistakably clear that great demographic changes were underway in American cities: middle class Americans, many of whom were Catholics, were leaving their urban parishes and moving to the suburbs. All of these factors posed difficulties for Saint Francis Xavier parish and made Father Kenny’s job more difficult. In spite of those challenges, Father Kenny provided strong leadership for the parishioners until his death on September 14, 1969.
After the death of Father Kenny, Father Aloysius H. Vath was appointed pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish. Father Vath, who was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, served as a chaplain in the United States Army during World War II in North Africa and Italy. Father Vath, known for his frequent walks through the parish, started the Legion of Mary in our parish. He served as the Legion’s spiritual director and urged its members to recite the rosary daily and to perform two hours of apostolic work each week. Due to illness, Father Vath was forced to relinquish most of his pastoral duties in 1976.
Father Raymond J. McHale became parish administrator that year while Father Vath continued as Pastor Emeritus for several years. In November, 1978, Father John P. O’Connor was named new pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish. Like his two immediate predecessors, Father O’Connor was forced to wrestle with the financial burdens of the parish. He instituted an Increased Offertory Program and the Parish Social Ministry. It was during Father O’Connor’s pastorate that Pope John Paul II came to Philadelphia and celebrated Holy Mass at Logan Circle on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Father O’Connor was transferred to another assignment in 1984.
Upon the transfer of Father O’Connor, Father Joseph F. Duffy was appointed pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish. In a parish history it is written of him, “In the short five years he has been here, he put the plan of Vatican II into action in the fullest sense.” Father Duffy strove to involve the laity in the life of the parish. He organized the first parish council in the spring of 1987, and he also instituted a parish Finance Committee, a Liturgy Committee, an Outreach Committee and a Bible Study Committee. Father also revived the Home and School Association. Father Duffy enthusiastically supported the parish’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1989. Not long after that celebratory event, Father Duffy was transferred to a new assignment.
In 1989, Father Joseph B. Graham, was appointed pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish. Not long after his appointment, Father Graham began development of a comprehensive evaluation of the maintenance needs of the parish buildings and organized a fundraising campaign to begin remedying them: The Fruit of the Living Vine Campaign. High on the list of needs addressed by that campaign were the great stained glass windows on the 24th Street wall of the church.
In September 1990 at the request of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Saint Francis Xavier Parish was entrusted to the pastoral care of the Oratorian Fathers. The Oratory (external website) is a community of secular priests and brothers who live a common life, observe a daily rule of prayer and practice the gift of stability, i.e., they hope to remain in one place for life. The Congregation of the Oratory was founded by Saint Philip Neri
(1515-1590) in Rome and it was officially established in 1575. Saint Phillip Neri was canonized with Saint Francis Xavier
on the same day in 1622.
The first Oratorian pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish was Father Dennis VanThuyne. Father Dennis served as pastor for three years during which time he worked to bring the parishioners together at social events, dances, parish meals and summer fetes. These were all well attended, and they served to create unity in a quickly diversifying parish.
Father Paul Convery C.O., our present pastor, was installed in 1993. Over the past fourteen years our church building has been significantly renewed especially with a new roof, and our parish school, with the lay advisory board, has grown and improved both academically and as a place of Catholic formation.