By NADIA MARIA SMITH
CS&T Staff Writer
The historic Old St. Joseph Parish is celebrating its 275th anniversary with a number of events throughout the year – the latest is a rededication of a 100-year-old religious freedom plaque given to the parish by the Knights of Columbus.
The plaque was a gift for the parish’s 175th anniversary in 1908 that was presented in grand K-of-C style with 7,500 Knights marching down Broad Street and Girard Avenue to 4th and Walnut Streets where nearly 200,000 people awaited them outside of the church.
It was Oct. 4, 1908, and the plaque was being dedicated to the memory of the founders of the faith in the Delaware Valley and in gratitude for the triumph of religious liberty.
In fact, in 1976, Old St. Joseph was a founding member of Old Philadelphia Congregations, a group of historic churches and synagogues that trace their heritage to William Penn’s 1701 “Charter of Privileges.”
Old St. Joseph, Philadelphia’s oldest Catholic community, was founded by Jesuits in 1733 and is still staffed by Jesuits and their lay colleagues. The parish has been in continuous existence since 1733. It is located in the historic Society Hill section of Philadelphia, just two blocks from Independence Hall National Park.
“In all the land there is no spot more sacred than Old St. Joseph’s,” said Knight of Columbus Michael J. Ryan in presenting the original religious freedom plaque in 1908. “It is indeed holy ground. It stands as the first visible and outward sign of religious freedom, which is the shining glory of the Republic.”
A hundred years later, the Knights of Columbus were present at the 12:05 Mass on Saturday, Oct. 4 to rededicate the plaque that had since been placed in an out-of-view location in the smaller church courtyard.
“The plaque originally was mounted on a gate between two buildings that formed an alleyway entrance to Old St. Joseph’s Church,” explained Knight George Koch. “Over the last 100 years the face of the city in that area has changed many times and one of the buildings that formed the alleyway has been demolished and a small park has replaced the demolished building. As you might expect, during the demolition the gate and plaque were removed. The plaque was eventually hung in a small interior courtyard over a doorway out of sight of most people and the gate was placed in the church basement. It just didn’t seem right to have this plaque hidden out of sight in a courtyard.”
Apparently, Knight Ernst Renk and former pastor Jesuit Father Mark Horak didn’t think so either.
Renk was visiting Old St. Joseph when he noticed the plaque. He spoke to a member of the Historical Preservation Corporation at the parish. One discussion led to another, which led to Father Horak requesting that the Knights of Columbus from the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania refurbish the plaque, reconfigure the gate, remount the plaque on the gate and install them in a more prominent location on the north wall of the church next to the church’s north entrance, Koch said.
“This location is only about 150 feet or so from the gate and plaque’s original location, and is now in a more prominent position where the plaque and gate can be seen and enjoyed by the citizens of the Delaware Valley and all who visit the park and enter Old St. Joseph’s Church,” he said.
After the Mass, the Knights processed around the church to the new location of the plaque led by a color corps formed from the eight assemblies that constitute the Pennsylvania East District of the Calvert Province. The new pastor of Old St. Joseph, Jesuit Father Daniel Ruff, blessed and rededicated the refurbished plaque and gate.
“This raises up to public view another piece of our long history,” Father Ruff said.
The rededication was also to honor all the “Knights that have gone before us and helped to make the Knights of Columbus the largest Catholic lay organization in the world,” Koch added.
CS&T staff writer Nadia Maria Smith may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 965-4614.