St. Eleanor Parish in Collegeville officially celebrated its 100th anniversary on Oct. 16, and Archbishop Charles Chaput visited to celebrate Mass and dedicate its new parish center. It was certainly needed because the bustling Montgomery County parish boasts at least 5,100 families and it is still growing.
That’s a far cry from the opening decade when there were only 20 families (swelled by summer vacationers escaping the heat of the city) and for that matter, the parish was called St. Clare. The name was changed to St. Eleanor in the 1920s to indirectly honor the memory of Catholic poet Eleanor Donnelly (1838-1917) who left $5,000 in her will for a needy parish, and it was given to St. Clare’s. The name was changed when the first church was built in 1921.
Backing up even further, as early as the 1880s, the then tiny hamlet on Perkiomen Creek, which takes its name from Ursinus College, would be visited by priests from Bally, Pottstown or Phoenixville.
When Father Thomas Sullivan arrived in 1911 to establish the then-St. Clare Parish he first celebrated Mass at what was the Commercial Hotel and Shepherds Hall. In addition to his tiny flock in Collegeville, he would travel by horse and buggy to outlying chapels in East Greenville and Green Lane.
The first little stone church was built by Father William A. Buesser at the time the parish was renamed.
The family of Loretta (Gross) Zvarick moved into the parish in 1939, and she remembers before there was a school the children would be bused to St. Francis, Norristown. In 1943, when Father John O’Neill opened a school with 77 students, it was impossible to build because of war restrictions, so it was in a converted dwelling. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur led by Sister Helena Julie lived on the top floor while the lower floor and basement had the classrooms, chapel and lunch room. Students were taught two grades to a room. A school was built when war restrictions were removed and served until the present school opened in 1992. The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary succeeded the Notre Dame Sisters in 1970, and now there is an entirely lay faculty.
Zvarick, who raised 12 children in the parish, recalls in the early days there were few parish organizations, but one that stands in her mind was the young adult social club started by associate pastor Father John Coates. “It was called The Steplys and we had seven couples from it marry, including myself and my husband,” she said.
1971, when Father Francis Lennon was, pastor the present larger church was erected, and just in time because the next several decades saw phenomenal growth – 1,686 families in 1990, 3,051 families in 2000 and 4,090 families in 2010.
Joe and Rose Bondi have been in the parish 47 years, active in any number of ministries and have witnessed that astonishing growth from 300 families when they arrived.
“It’s just a great parish and I’m pleased with the growth and the sheer number of ministries we have,” Joe Bondi said. “We’ve also had dedicated and wonderful pastors, we are blessed.”
Perhaps the most dramatic event in parish history occurred in the early morning hours of July 18, 1978. An electrical fire in the rectory caused the smoke alarm to go off, and Father Lennon, who heard it, notified his assistant, Father Patrick Sweeney, and with no other means of escape, clad in pajamas, they climbed out onto the porch roof, where the fire department swiftly rescued them. The rectory was gutted but thankfully no one was injured, and now since 2003, Msgr. Sweeney is back at St. Eleanor as pastor.
One of the strongest programs at St. Eleanor is prayer through perpetual adoration (24 hours six days a week) and it has been going on for many years according to Dick Heath who came to the parish about 46 years ago and is a faithful member of the group. “With that and the rosary we have a lot of good things we are doing,” he said.
St. Eleanor is not only a large parish; it is a young parish in terms of demographics. Msgr. Sweeney points to his school with 505 students and recently added Pre-K; the PREP program with 1,100 kids including a fair number in high school, taught by 104 teachers. The new 25,000 square foot Parish Center blessed by Archbishop Chaput was built at a cost of $6 million, has ten much-needed classrooms, a library and ample meeting space. The parish CYO is so large, Msgr. Sweeney estimates there are about 20 basketball teams.
Yes, St. Eleanor has grown mightily, but with that, “it still functions like a small country church,” Msgr. Sweeney said.