By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Books don’t always tell the whole story. Take Our Lady of Hope Parish on North Broad Street. According to the archdiocesan Catholic Directory, it was founded just 16 years ago, but its history and traditions go way back.
First there was St. Stephen Parish founded in 1843, then there was Holy Child and Our Lady of the Holy Souls parishes, both founded in 1909. Because most Catholics moved away, the three closed in 1993 when Our Lady of Hope was founded with the former Holy Child as the church site and what was Holy Souls as an additional worship site; St. Stephen’s quietly passed out of existence.
On Nov. 1 Cardinal Rigali visited Our Lady of Hope to celebrate Mass for the 100th anniversary of the founding of Holy Child. On Nov. 15 another centennial Mass was held at the former Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church with Father Stephen Thorne, director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics and a son of the parish, as homilist.
It’s hard to envision, but when Holy Child was founded, according to a history prepared by former Holy Child parishioner William Cella, much of the parish territory was corn and wheat fields.
The parish name was suggested by the founding pastor, Father William McCaffery, in honor of the Holy Child Sisters who taught at St. Edward’s, (1865-1993) one of the parishes from which it took territory.
Father McCaffery built a beautiful church. In 1936, just a little more than two years before he became Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli visited and prayed at the high altar. Bishop Fulton Sheen, a possible future canonized saint, was a frequent visitor.
In 1935, Father Joseph McShea, later founding Bishop of Allentown but then an official in Rome, obtained relics of what is reputed to be the crib of the Infant Jesus for the parish. A special lower level shrine to the Holy Child was built by the church and recently refurbished; it remains a favored place for prayer.
As part of the anniversary celebration, Cardinal Rigali led a procession with the relic from the church to the adjoining shrine. The church was full for the joy-filled ceremony and included several hundred former parishioners, according to Father Efren Esmilla, who has been pastor of Our Lady of Hope for the past three years.
Another relic enshrined in the church is of Marianist Father C. John Conley, a son of the parish who, while stationed in the Solomon Islands, was beheaded by the Japanese during World War II.
At the same time Holy Child was founded, Our Lady of the Holy Souls formed in nearby Tioga to serve a mostly Irish and German Catholic population. Not as large a parish as Holy Child, it was nevertheless flourishing.
The first permanent building erected by Father Thomas Moore, the founding pastor, was a school conducted by the Sisters of St. Joseph. At its peak, there was also a two-year commercial school and a total enrollment of about 700 students.
By the 1940s the demographic mix in the North Philadelphia parishes was beginning to noticeably change, and with the end of World War II the great Catholic migration to the suburbs began.
Over time the dominant population in much of the North Philadelphia neighborhoods became African-American, mostly non-Catholic.
Nevertheless, Tioga “was a great neighborhood,” Father Thorne said. “Growing up the elders were my moms and dads and my vocation came from the good priests and the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Sisters of Mercy. I can’t ever remember missing Mass because I wanted to go to Mass, the ministry was so strong.”
In 1993, the three original parishes were suppressed, and Our Lady of Hope was founded as part of a sweeping reorganization of the parishes in North Philadelphia.
With about 1,900 families, today’s Our Lady of Hope is predominantly African-American but with a Hispanic and Filipino presence. Weekly Masses are in English and Spanish and twice monthly in Tagalog for the Filipinos.
Devotions are a big part of parish life, the pastor said. There is a thriving Forty Hours devotion and a revived tradition, a nine-Sunday novena to the Holy Child that started Oct. 25 and leads up to Christmas, he said.
Our Lady of Hope is well-named. according to its pastor. “It is giving hope to the people, and the people love the parish,” he said.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.