St. Peter the Apostle Parish in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia will mark its 175th anniversary with a 3:30 p.m. Mass on Sunday, Oct. 15 celebrated by Bishop Edward Deliman and a reception to follow. It is also the 175th anniversary of the presence of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) in the city.
Chances are the imposing St. Peter Church, on the corner of Fifth Street and Girard Avenue, will see many more anniversaries as will the Redemptorist Fathers. The church is also the home of the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, who became America’s first canonized male saint and was also a Redemptorist.
At its foundation in 1842 and for many years after, St. Peter the Apostle was a personal parish for German-speaking Catholics. Actually in the colonial era a sizable part of Philadelphia’s small Catholic community was of German origin.
Philadelphia’s third parish, Holy Trinity in old city, was founded for German speakers. But this demographic changed with a 19th century flood of Irish immigrants both among the clergy and the laity.
Nevertheless by 1842 a sizable community of German immigrants had settled further north in the city and they petitioned Bishop Francis Kenrick for a parish of their own. He consented to this provided they could assure him of 50 families that wished a parish. This was confirmed but the problem was the diocese did not have available priests who were fluent in German.
Bishop Kenrick asked the Redemptorist Fathers in Baltimore if they would establish a German parish and they agreed. That congregation first came to America from Germany with the intention of evangelizing Native Americans but soon realized the more pressing spiritual need was serving non-English-speaking German immigrants.
The land on Girard Avenue was purchased by the Redemptorists for $17,000. Father Louis Cartuyvels, the first pastor, immediately began plans for a church. The congregation was very poor; the first recorded collection was $1.40.
Fortunately help came through a $4,000 donation from the Leopoldine Society in Vienna which was very generous to American missions, especially German American missions.
In the early years the tenure of the Redemptorist pastors was short; Father Cartuyvels remained but a few months. The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1843 by Father George Beranek.
As was often done in the 19th century, the men of the parish, after their day’s work, would come to the site for the labor-intensive project of digging the basement level. In this they were assisted by 50 volunteers from nearby St. Michael’s Parish.
Almost immediately after the founding of the parish a school house was built with an initial enrollment of about 100 pupils taught by lay teachers.
The church itself was still under construction when the anti-Catholic riots broke out in 1844. Although St. Michael’s was destroyed the rioters ignored St. Peter’s probably because it was mostly a fight between immigrant Irish Protestants and immigrant Irish Catholics.
The church was sufficiently finished in 1845 to be dedicated. Three years later the School Sisters of Notre Dame arrived to take charge, initially of the girls in the school but ultimately the entire school which at its peak would include a flourishing Commercial School. The sisters remain to this day through the principal, Sister Rosalia Federici.
In 1855 during the administration of Bishop John Neumann, the German parishes in Philadelphia led by St. Peter Parish established St. Vincent Orphan Asylum for German children in Northeast Philadelphia which remained in operation until recent years.
Meanwhile, in St. Peter’s early decades, Redemptorist priests who died were interred under the church. When Bishop Neumann died in 1860, with the permission of Bishop Francis Kenrick, who was then Archbishop of Baltimore, the future St. John Neumann was also buried there along with his Redemptorist confreres.
Although the remains of the other Redemptorists were eventually moved to Holy Redeemer Cemetery, Bishop Neumann’s were not because of the veneration by the faithful at his gravesite. His shrine is still in the lower level of the church and it is a popular stop for devotees of the beloved saint, who was canonized in 1977.
Today’s St. Peter the Apostle parish is thriving in large part due to the presence of the shrine. It has six weekend Masses, three daily weekday Masses, and twice-daily confessions according to Father Richard Bennett, the pastor. In addition to Father Bennett there is a fair number of fellow Redemptorists as parochial vicars or residents. The congregation also recently moved their archives from Baltimore to the St. Peter campus.
The character of the once-industrial neighborhood has changed several times right up to the present, and it now shows some gentrification. There is no longer a Mass in German at St. Peter, but there is one in Spanish.
“It’s a very diverse and exciting parish,” Father Bennett said.
There is a scheduled Spanish Mass and St. Peter’s, true to its German immigrant foundation, is still welcoming to newcomers, even if they are no longer coming from Europe. Father Bennett can also point to the Filipinos, Haitians, Brazilians and Vietnamese as well as the Latinos who have found a home at St. Peter’s.
Registered population at 1,717 by the last October count is off 26 percent over the past five years, but that is not the real story. During that same period Mass attendance has risen from 745 to 846. Some but not all of this can be attributed to pilgrims at the shrine.
A more telling figure is the ratio of baptisms to funerals. Last year St. Peter’s had 61 baptisms but only 20 funerals.
Danielle Sorichillo was not raised in any religion, but her husband Christopher was. She started attending Mass with him 11 years ago, and when they moved to Port Richmond they just kept coming to St. Peter’s. Their three children were baptized there and the eldest, Giancarlo, is in kindergarten at St. Peter School.
Last year Danielle made the final leap of faith and entered the RCIA program and was baptized this year at Easter.
“I love the parish, it’s just like family,” she said. “Father Bennett is amazing and Father Anthony (Michalik), who baptized our youngest, is wonderful.”
Melissa Torres, who teaches seventh grade at St. Peter’s after having taught elsewhere previously, is also an absolute fan of the parish and school. Her own two children attend St. Peter School.
“I personally call St. Peter School heaven,” she said. “Sister Rose and Father Bennett are so involved. They take a personal interest and I love it there.”
For that matter she has nothing but good to say about the entire Redemptorist community at the parish and shrine. “They are very welcoming and they don’t judge, they listen,” she said.
But the School Sisters of Notre Dame who have been part of the parish fabric for 169 of the 175 years have also played an important and continuing role.
Sister Rosalia, the principal for the past 30 years, is the last of the presence of the School Sisters of Notre Dame at the school. Nevertheless, “you can see the charism of our foundress, Mother Caroline here,” she said,” especially through solidarity with the poor.”
Actually it’s the charism not only of Mother Caroline but of so many dedicated Redemptorist priests and brothers, School Sisters of Notre Dame and lay people down through the generations that make the parish, shrine and school very special indeed.