By Lou Baldwin

There are, according to the Philadelphia Catholic Directory, 36 churches where one may attend a Mass celebrated in Spanish, and the number keeps growing. It is hard to imagine a century or so ago there were none.

La Milagrosa, or more formally Capilla Católica Hispana de la Medalla Milagrosa (Spanish Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal) and informally the Spanish Chapel, which opened its centennial year with a Mass celebrated by Bishop John McIntyre on May 22, was the first place in the Archdiocese with an exclusively Spanish Mass on a regular basis.

Located at 1903 Spring Garden St. in a row of townhouses, it can be easily missed because there is little indication it is a house of worship, which it has been since 1912. {{more}}

Its history traces back a few years earlier when the small but growing number of Spanish-speaking Catholics in the city petitioned Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan for a parish of their own. A problem was a lack of Spanish-speaking priests, and at the suggestion of the Vincentian Fathers, their province in Barcelona was contacted and eventually sent priests to America.

According to history researched and supplied by La Milagrosa parishioner Humberto Mendez, Vincentian Father Anthony Casulleras arrived in 1908 and early Masses were celebrated at Old St. Mary’s Church.

His congregation was very poor. A major benefactor in those early years was Sister Agatha Quintana, a Sister of Charity who was of Spanish heritage and the daughter of a California cattle rancher. She was stationed at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph Hospital at the time.

In a first annual report sent to Archbishop Ryan, there were about 1,000 members of Philadelphia’s Spanish colony. They were businessmen and laborers in Philadelphia’s tobacco (mostly cigar) industry, students at several colleges and sailors in the city from various steamship lines. Many, especially the wives, spoke no English, and Father Casulleras estimated only about 50 attended Sunday Mass. He believed a major impediment was the difference in language and customs from other Americans, and in addition to religious services, he hoped to establish classes in English.

Among the Spanish speakers, he said, were about 150 of African ancestry.

In a real sense this group proved crucial for the eventual establishment of the Spanish Chapel.

One of the benefactors cultivated by Father Casulleras and his successor, Father Antonio Canas, was Mother (now St.) Katharine Drexel, foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Although the focus of her ministry was to Native and African Americans, she would also contribute to other groups provided they also assisted one of these two ethnic groups.

When Father Canas was hard-pressed to raise the funds needed to purchase the house at 1903 Spring Garden St., he appealed to Mother Katharine, and she responded generously by donating $1,080 – a very substantial sum a century ago. But she was an astute business woman as well as a saint.

She insisted on a signed agreement, a copy of which Mendez obtained from the Blessed Sacrament Sisters’ archives. She stipulated in it if the “Spanish-speaking Colored People” were excluded, the $1,080 must be refunded to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Also, should the property be sold at a future date, the Blessed Sacrament Sisters should receive not the original $1,080, but their proportionate share of the purchase and development cost, which by now would probably be substantially higher.

The official foundation date of the chapel was April 26, 1912, under Archbishop Edmond Prendergast, and next year a closing date of the centennial with Cardinal Justin Rigali is planned for April 28.

When the Barcelona Vincentians withdrew in 1976 because of diminished numbers, it became a chapel served by the clergy of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, but it remains as a historic and beloved place of worship for Philadelphia’s Hispanic community.

The little chapel celebrates two Sunday Masses in Spanish; at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. with one in summer at 10:30 a.m., and daily Masses three times weekly, according to Father Charles Kennedy, parochial vicar in charge of La Milagrosa.

He estimates Sunday attendance at about 120, with many coming from the Fairmount and Spring Garden neighborhoods, but others come from a variety of areas. It has a rosary group, a charismatic prayer group and socials, but mostly there is a sense of community.

“I started coming here in, I would say, 1967,” said Deacon Epi de Jesus, who is assigned to La Milagrosa. “It is small in structure but giant in love; it has love for all races.”

He has seen parishioners who are Spanish, Mexican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, Paraguayan and Cuban, among others, and he remembers a time when it was standing-room only at Mass.

While the proliferation of Spanish Masses elsewhere has affected attendance, La Milagrosa remains important to Hispanic Catholics.

“It is our Plymouth Rock for Hispanic laity in Philadelphia,” Deacon de Jesus said.

Maria Miranda has been attending La Milagrosa since her family came from Puerto Rico in 1978.

“We came with nothing but the clothes on our back, and we met so many people from different backgrounds who gave us a helping hand,” she said, recalling especially the kindness of Trinitarian Sister John Judith who ministered at La Milagrosa for many years.

Although she no longer lives in the immediate neighborhood, Miranda said, “What draws me to this place is a continuation of my culture. The people are so friendly, it strengthens my faith.”

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