By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

In 1950, according to “Our Faith-Filled Heritage,” the archdiocesan bicentennial history, there were 1,915 diocesan and religious order priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia serving 1,058,058 Catholics. That was a peak time, with one priest to every 552 people.

Figures published in the 2009 archdiocesan Catholic Directory show 989 priests serving 1,458,430 Catholics, or one for every 1,474 Catholics. To put that in further perspective, 168 of the diocesan priests are retired, ill, or serving outside the diocese. Last year three priests were ordained for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This past December alone, three diocesan priests died.

There is a religious vocations crisis in many countries, including the United States, and it is incumbent on everyone to address it, especially by encouraging men who experience a potential call to priesthood to pursue it.

This is not unprecedented in Philadelphia history. For example, according to that same history, in 1787 there were only 34 priests in the entire United States to care for 35,000 Catholics. That’s not an unreasonable number until one considers the enormous territory they had to cover at a time when horseback or stagecoach were considered speedy. Many Catholics saw a priest only a few times a year, and a great many fell away from the faith mostly because of the lack of ministry.

In those early years, clergy were not Diocesan priests for the simple reason that there was no diocese of Philadelphia until 1808. They tended to be Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans or Augustinians.

The circuit-riding priests were true missionaries, suffering all sorts of discomfort for the faith. As a matter of fact, in 1793, two Philadelphia priests died of yellow fever contracted while ministering to the stricken. One of them, Father Laurence Graessl, was posthumously named an auxiliary bishop for Baltimore, the nation’s only diocese, because the Vatican was unaware of his death.

Because there was no Philadelphia Diocese, priests were simply hired by congregations and a few priests were of questionable character, something that led to headaches for the bishops once the diocese was established.

It was not until the administration of Bishop Francis P. Kenrick, (1830-51) who served first as coadjutor and later as bishop, that order was achieved.

In 1832, Bishop Kenrick established what would become St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. In short order there was a steady stream of energetic young priests ordained in quantity sufficient to satisfy the needs of the growing diocese. A glance at the records shows an overwhelming number of them had Irish surnames, which was not surprising, since most Philadelphia Catholics in the 19th century were of Irish ancestry.

If anything, Philadelphia had a priest surplus. Even up until the 1960s, there were some years when more than 50 were ordained. Men who could not enter St. Charles were eagerly snapped up by other dioceses around the country.

In 1935, because of the economy, 18 members of the lay faculty at Roman Catholic High School were laid off and replaced by young priests. Similarly, when St. Thomas More High School opened the following year, the entire faculty was composed of priests, mostly ordained that same year.

During World War II an incredible 78 archdiocesan priests were released for service as chaplains in the armed forces.

Up until the Allentown Diocese was established in 1960, it was common practice to send newly ordained priests to parishes in that area for seasoning. Later, they would come to the Philadelphia area, where most Catholics lived and parishes tended to be much larger.

A generation ago, with several priests in most parishes, rectory life was different. In that age, before cell phones and answering machines, as a rule, one priest on a rotating basis would be on call 24/7, notes Msgr. James Connelly, who was editor of the archdiocesan history published in 1976. Today, with fewer priests that is not generally possible.

Msgr. Connelly believes the lack of priests in the schools contributes to fewer vocations, but of course there are few priests in the schools because there are few priests in the diocese. He also mourns the loss of the sense of camaraderie and solidarity among priests which developed through larger rectories. But in the final analysis the role of the priest hasn’t changed, he said.

He’s right. We still need priests to give us the grace and the comfort of the sacraments. Let’s pray and work for more of them in the future.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.