West Chester Parish grows from 670 families to 2,400 today

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

In 1986 Cardinal John Krol authorized the foundation of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s first entirely new parish in a decade in what was then considered Westtown (now part of West Chester),

Perhaps in a tip to his own Polish heritage, he named it for St. Maximilian Kolbe, the heroic self-sacrificing priest who was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1941 and canonized in 1982.

The parish was officially founded June 16, 1986, and Father (now Msgr.) Hugh P. Campbell, the first pastor, found himself with a 20-acre lot on Pleasant Grove Road and 670 families drawn from St. Agnes and SS. Simon and Jude, West Chester, but no building. {{more}}

A few of the earliest Masses were celebrated at the West Chester University Newman Club’s chapel, and a 20 x 40 trailer, which had been a temporary classroom-library for St. Thomas School in Chester Heights, was obtained. This served as a rectory, meeting hall and daily chapel, with weekend liturgies at Stetson Middle School.

Construction on the more than 700-seat parish church began in January 1988, and it was dedicated by then-Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua that September.

The cornerstone of the church contains soil from outside the Auschwitz cell of St. Maximilian; it had been obtained for the parish by the brother of Maria McGinn, who was herself born in Poland.

Another interesting treasure of the church is a plaque inset into the narthex wall with an image of St. Maximilian. Pope John Paul II gave the plaque to Cardinal Krol for the church, after he learned a parish was being named for the new Polish saint.

By the year 2000, when St. Maximilian School opened, the parish had grown to 2,000 families.

Permanent Deacon Lawrence Brandon had served with Father Campbell at his previous assignment as Newman chaplain for West Chester University, and with Cardinal Krol’s permission, he came with him to the newly formed St. Maximilian Kolbe, and he remembers those early days.

“It was a very young parish with many children and lots of enthusiasm, and there still is,” he said. “That’s why we were able to get the school going so quickly.”

Before the church was built, baptisms were done either at St. Agnes or SS. Simon and Jude, and there were many of them. Deacon Brandon, who recently retired, personally baptized 516 children over the quarter century.

One advantage of a parish named for a 20th-century saint is that there were living people who knew him well. One who visited the parish in December 1990 was Franciszek Gajoniczek, the fellow prisoner singled out for execution whose place St. Maximilian voluntarily took because Gajoniczek was a husband and father of young children.

Another visitor in 1992 and 1994, Maria McGinn noted, was Franciscan Brother Jerome Wierzba, who was Father Kolbe’s friend and secretary before his 1939 arrest. Both he and Gajoniczek were guests of Jack and Maria McGinn, and she was their interpreter during the visits.

Jack McGinn, who was a member of the first parish pastoral council, remembers the early years as an exciting time.

“A lot of Catholics were moving into the area from Delaware County,” he said, adding the founding pastor had the charisma and personality needed for the task.

McGinn is also a charter member of St. Maximilian Kolbe Knights of Columbus Council, founded in 1994 by parishioners, which although it is not an official parish organization, contributes to its spiritual and social life.

At this time St. Maximilian has about 2,400 families with about 325 students in the school and another 550 children in the religious education program, according to Msgr. Robert J. Carroll, who has been pastor since 2007 and who celebrated the parish anniversary Mass on June 12.

One cannot pinpoint a single program of the parish that stands above the rest for the simple reason there are a multitude of programs, and they all work well, Msgr. Carroll explained.

“We have adult education, service projects, Families in Action, Kids in Action, and a C.Y.O. that is quite involved. A number of things are going on, and we have built a community that really appreciates the parish.”

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