When St. Cecilia Parish was founded a century ago, there really weren’t many Catholics in the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia; it was mostly German Protestants, and for that reason its boundaries extended well into Montgomery County. Today it is one of the largest parishes in the city; and although the parish footprint is smaller, it still extends beyond the city limits.
The parish was officially founded Oct. 1, 1911, and Father William Sheridan, who was an associate at St. Veronica Parish, was named pastor. He brought with him a generous donation from that parish to give him a start. First Masses were celebrated in donated facilities in Grooket’s Hall at Oxford and Rhawn Streets, but very quickly plans were made for the erection of a church. In that era parishes had to build a school before a permanent church, so it was decided to just build a basement church on a Rhawn Street property and complete it at a later date. The cornerstone was laid June 30, 1912, and the first solemn Mass was sung Oct. 6 of that year.
The first religious vocation was Lillian McCall who entered the Immaculate Heart Sisters in 1918; in all 40 young men and women entered the priesthood or convent from St. Cecilia.
The first parish school, conducted by the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, opened in September 1925 with 113 children and Mother Marianna as principal. Two years later, a two-year commercial school was added, an important feature in an era when most children, especially girls, did not go on to high school.
The parish weathered the hard times of the Great Depression which was followed by World War II; after that it really began to grow, and a special attraction was its location on the edge of the city, an area favored by police, firefighters and other city workers who had to live within the city limits.
In 1954, while Father John Godfrey was pastor, it was time to finally build the permanent church, but with a slight change in plans. It was decided the basement church, which was by no means small, was not large enough to support an upper church of the size needed by the still-growing parish.
The beautiful church of today, where Archbishop Charles Chaput celebrated the 100th anniversary Mass Oct. 2, was built nearby, and the first church torn down, with only a small set of steps in the parking lot to remind the parishioners where St. Cecilia’s began.
“The Archbishop’s message was spot on,” said Kate Meredith, a parishioner for seven years with daughters at St.Cecilia School. “He talked about how important the past is and those who went before us, but we must move forward and make the parish even better. This was the first time I saw him, and it is wonderful that he kept the commitment (to come) made by Cardinal Rigali.”
Today’s St. Cecilia has 3,700 families, a flourishing menu of spiritual and social programs and a thriving school.
“We still have 672 students; it is outstanding,” said Father Charles Bonner, who has been pastor for the past decade. “The school has the support of the older parishioners, and they carry it,” he said. “The school gives the parish life and vitality, especially through the sacramental program. I love to see how excited the children get as they progress through the sacraments.”
You might say Bill Hagan has lived his entire spiritual life in St. Cecilia Parish. An adult convert, he joined the parish immediately after his baptism, and truthfully wasn’t absolutely sure what he was getting into.
“My two sons were baptized and confirmed here,” he said. “Father Bonner is a really good priest who has the parish at heart. Over the years there have been a lot of good priests and they all made an impact.”
Leslie Moffat, a parishioner since 1994, has put two children though the school with her youngest in eighth grade. “My daughter Katherine chose Cecilia for her confirmation name because her parish is family. It says a lot about the parish that it produces good Catholic children.”