By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

As part of their 125th anniversary celebration, members of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Ambler held a candlelight procession through their neighborhood on June 12. Back when it was founded in 1886 the area was called Wissahickon.

Two years later when the township was incorporated, it adopted the name of the railroad stop, which was named in honor of Mary Ambler, a heroic Quaker woman who assisted survivors of a horrific train accident in the area in 1856, which killed 59, mostly picnickers traveling from St. Michael Parish in Philadelphia.

According to a parish history supplied by Barbara Daly, the first church for St. Anthony’s was built by Father Henry Stommel, an almost legendary German immigrant priest who built or had a hand in the establishment of nine churches in Southeastern Pennsylvania. {{more}}

Father Stommel’s St. Anthony congregation was initially tiny, just 30 families, two of whom lived in Ambler. The cornerstone was laid April 26, 1886, and the church was dedicated Sept. 21 of the same year. There was an attempt to establish a parish school under the direction of the Sisters of St. Francis, but it was short-lived due to a lack of students.

Although the parish was still rather small, the school, which still exists today, opened in 1928 under the direction of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Anne (Scheibenhoffer) Puglise attended that school in the 1940s and declares, “Absolutely it was a good school. I got a good education and liked all the nuns, except one.” She only had three teachers over eight years, so two out of three isn’t bad.

The school was really small: There were only 14 in Puglise’s graduating class. Of the three teachers, one taught grades one to three; another grades four to six; and the mother superior taught grades seven and eight.

Puglise also remembers the many good priests who served at St. Anthony’s, especially one young deacon before he was ordained, Daniel E. Thomas. “I thought he had great potential,” she said. Recently as Bishop Thomas, he returned to celebrate Mass for the parish.

Jennifer Sowden only arrived in the parish four years ago, but lived in the area most of her life.

“I absolutely love St. Anthony’s – the community, the people and the different programs,” she said. A mother of three, she is a member of the parish Family and Youth Commission, the Moms and Tots group and the Bible Study Program.

“The parish really is growing in liveliness,” she said.

Father Stommel’s church, with renovations and expansion, stood for more than a century. Then in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve 2000, a fire broke out and heavily damaged the building. Between fire, smoke, water and ensuing mildew damage, it was deemed more practical to tear it down than to repair. Also, as a practical matter, the church, with a capacity of 400, was too small for current needs and could not be expanded at that exact site.

A new church was built across from the old, and a new wing added to the school at the same time. Total cost for the project was $11 million, but only $3.5 million was covered by insurance.

The new St. Anthony Church, which incorporates antique stained glass and other architectural elements from the old church, was dedicated in 2004.

It seats 750 in the nave, which can be expanded by opening up the sliding glass to the Mary Chapel, and including the crying room, there is capacity for more than 1,000, according to Msgr. Stephen P. McHenry, who has been pastor of St. Anthony’s since 1991. It also incorporates a large narthex, or gathering space, a luxury the old church did not have.

But a parish is a worshipping community, not a building.

With 1,750 families, “we have a wonderful sense of welcoming,” Msgr. McHenry said, and it goes beyond the parish. They have adopted sister parishes in Appalachia and Housan, Jordan; helped support an eye clinic in Guatemala and a fledgling congregation of religious sisters in Sierra Leone. They partner with nearby St. Matthew Episcopal Church in providing housing and other services for two families.

The parish school is still open, and while it is small, Msgr. McHenry is optimistic for the future, thanks to scholarship funding that has been obtained.

Through long-range planning, a multitude of parish ministries have been established.

“We have a lot of things going on, there is vibrancy and vitality, and that is good,” Msgr. McHenry said.

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