Immaculate Conception Parish
The parish of the Immaculate Conception, located in East Germantown, was founded on December 1, 1901. An offshoot of the mother church of Germantown, St. Vincent de Paul Church, Immaculate Conception was founded to serve the needs of the growing Catholic population of the area that is modern-day East Germantown. Upon its founding, it was decreed that the Immaculate Conception Chapel, the seminary chapel for the Vincentian Fathers novitiate and seminary, located at 500 E. Chelten Avenue, would be the church for the new parish. Fr. James O. Hayden C.M. was appointed pastor for the new parish. He laid down the foundation for the parish, and then was succeeded as pastor by Fr. John W. Moore, C.M. in 1903. Fr. Moore set about meeting what he saw as the most immediate need of the new parish, the building of a parish school.
In September 1904, the stately Immaculate Conception Parish School, located on the corner of Sprague Street and Chelten Avenue, was opened with an opening enrollment of over 900 pupils and staffed by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Fr. Moore was succeeded as pastor by Fr. Michael J. Higgins, C.M. in 1906. Fr. Higgins set about addressing the remaining needs of the fledgling parish. First and foremost, was the need of a parish hall.
The Immaculate Conception Parish Hall, located at 810 East Chelten Avenue, opened in 1908 and was one of the grandest parochial halls in the archdiocese. It contained a large auditorium with a stage and balcony on the upper level. That auditorium was multi-purpose, as it was also used for basketball games, banquets and other such parish activities. The main level contained a "recital room" which was smaller than the auditorium space and used for many of the smaller parish activities. Attached to this room was a kitchen. There were two other meeting rooms on the main level. The basement contained a 4-lane bowling alley and several smaller meeting rooms. Fr. Higgins then set about to address the next most immediate need – the building of a new parish church. With the growth spurt in the area at the time, the parish simply outgrew the seminary church. It was decided to better position the new church in the center of the parish boundaries. To do so, the land where the school was located was deemed the ideal location. The land was purchased and all remaining parochial buildings would be constructed on the quadrant of land bordered by Chelten Avenue, Sprague Street, Price Street and Ardleigh Street.
In 1911, the “lower church” was completed, with dedication taking place on Sunday, December 3, 1911. In building this church, the intent was to to build a larger, cathedral type church above it at a later date. Next, Fr. Higgins set about to build a new residence for the parish priests. While the parish church was at the seminary location, the parish priests lived in the seminary buildings. When the "lower church" was completed, the priests moved into a temporary residence at 1045 E. Chelten Avenue, until the new Rectory was completed. In 1914, the handsome Rectory, located at 1020 East Price street, was completed. By 1922, with parish debt being at a manageable level, Fr. Higgins set about giving the good sisters who staffed the school a new home. Until this time, the Sisters lived in two large residences on Sprague Street, next to the school. These quarters had become cramped and there was a real need for a new residence for the Sisters.
In 1924, the striking new convent, located at 5725 Sprague Street was completed and was large enough to house 40 sisters. With the Sprague Street residences now vacated, Fr, Higgins established the Immaculate Conception Commercial School, which taught high school age girls such business skills as typing, stenography, bookkeeping, etc. The buildings were further used for meeting space. Next was the monumental task of constructing the large “upper church”.
With the growth of the Catholic population in the area, there was a real need to supplement the "lower church" with additional worship space. Construction began in 1927 and was completed in 1930. The result is the massive and gothic Church of the Immaculate Conception, a beautiful edifice that was an immediate landmark that towers over the housetops of East Germantown. The church was dedicated in a solemn ceremony on June 1, 1930. In 1933, Fr, Higgins was re-assigned, after faithfully serving Immaculate Conception Parish for 29 years (27 years as pastor and 2 years as curate). So much was accomplished under his pastorate, direction and leadership. Fr. John J. Corcoran, C.M. succeeded Fr Higgins as pastor and served until 1939. Fr. Thomas Devereaux succeeded Fr. Corcoran and served as pastor until 1945. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Fr. Devereaux’s pastorate was the final payment on the church building debt. Fr. Charles J. Rooney succeeded Fr. Devereaux as pastor and served until 1951.
It was during Fr. Rooney’s pastorate that the Immaculate Conception Commercial School was closed due to declining enrollment as most girls at that point continued their education through high school. The building was then used for additional classroom space for the parish school. He further built an annex on Chelten Avenue, next to the school, which contained four additional classrooms. This annex was built on to the rear of a Chelten Avenue home that was owned by the parish and used as the Acquinas Lending Library for the parish. This additional classroom space was needed with the growing school enrollment that occurred in the Baby Boom years.
Fr. Lewis F. Bennett succeeded Fr. Rooney as pastor in 1951. It was during Fr. Bennett’s pastorate that school enrollment peaked at around 1,800. In 1956, Immaculate Conception became a feeder school for the newly-built Cardinal Dougherty High School. Prior to this time, the boys went to Northeast Catholic High School or St. John the Baptist High School for Boys and the girls went to Little Flower High School, or to St. John the Baptist High School for Girls or John W. Hallahan High School (prior to the building of Little Flower High School). It was also during Fr. Bennett’s pastorate that the popular IC Carnival (or Lawn Fete as it was also called) came into being. This week-long summer social and fund-raising event, held in the school yard, included rides, games of chance, food, entertainment, prizes, etc.
In 1957, Fr. Patrick Flaherty, C.M. replaced Fr. Bennett as pastor. It was during Fr. Flaherty’s pastorate that the demographics of the area and parish began to change. School enrollment, while still strong, began to decline to around 1,200 to 1,300. It was during his pastorate that the car and bus garages in the school yard were built where a greenhouse had been, as well as, the school annex was expanded to add lavatories, another stairway and a new front façade. To build this, the home on Chelten Avenue that had been the Acquinas Lending Library had to be demolished. In 1963, Fr. Joseph Becker, C.M. succeeded Fr. Flaherty as pastor. School enrollment continued to drop, to around 1,000. It was during Fr. Becker’s pastorate that the decision was made to institute a tuition charge to attend the parish school, though the plan was actually implemented under his successor, Fr. John Nicholas, C.M., who succeeded Fr. Becker as pastor in 1969.
It was during Fr. Nicholas’ pastorate that a devastating event occurred that forever impacted Immaculate Conception Parish. In September 1971, the beloved school was set afire by vandals, a fire that destroyed the school and eventually resulted in its demolition, along with the demolition of the school annex and the commercial building (the first convent and formerly housed the IC Commercial School). At the time of the fire, the school had an enrollment of over 800. The vacated Holy Rosary School, St. Benedict School and the parish hall temporarily served as the school. After considering the continuing and projected decline in the school enrollment, it was decided not to build a new school but to convert the lower levels of parish hall into the school. Immaculate Conception School, which so majestically stood at the corner of Sprague Street and Chelten Avenue and where thousands of parish youth were educated since 1904, was gone forever. Truly a sad chapter in the history of Immaculate Conception Parish.
Also during Fr. Nicholas' pastorate, the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish was closed as a parish, but with the church remaining open as a mission of Immaculate Conception Parish. Holy Rosary, as it was familiarly known, was a national parish serving the Italian community of East Germantown from its establishment in 1928. The mission role continued until the Holy Rosary Church, located at Haines Street and Belfield Avenue, was severely damaged by an electrical fire in 1977. It was then forever closed as a Catholic worship site, with the building then sold. Today, it serves as a Baptist church. It was also during Fr. Nicholas' pastorate that the back half of the “lower church” was converted into a social hall. This was around the mid-1970s. Fr. Nicholas was succeeded by Fr. James Kiernan as pastor in 1978. Fr. Kiernan was a product of East Germantown and Immaculate Conception, having graduated from the school in 1956. He served as pastor until 1980, when he was replaced by Fr. Stephen Trzecieski, C.M., who served as pastor for just one year, until 1980. Fr. Trzecieski was succeeded by Fr. Bernard Tracey, C.M., who served as pastor until 1984. Fr. Tracey was succeeded as pastor in 1984 by Fr. Eugene Sheridan, C.M. It was during Fr. Sheridan’s pastorate that great change occurred to the parish. As school enrollment continued to decline, the decision was made in 1985 to consolidate Immaculate Conception School with neighboring St. Athanasius School, at their location on Limekiln Pike. As a result of the shrinking membership base, parish finances were severely strained. So, with the consolidation of the school, the decision was made to sell off the beloved parish hall. This was a difficult decision as the parish hall was such an integral part of parish life since the beginning days of the parish. Today, the grand old parish hall still stands and now serves as a Haitian Evangelical Church. Further, with the consolidation of the school, the few remaining IHM Sisters were reassigned within their community. This was another sad event for the parish as the good Sisters had faithfully and devotedly served the educational needs of youth attending Immaculate Conception School since its founding in 1904. In 1989, the vacated convent was converted for use as the Ghebre Michael Inn, a residential social mission to assist unemployed and needy men to achieve employment and financial independence. This social mission was a joint effort of the Vincentian Fathers, the Daughters of Charity and the Parish. Today, the old convent still serves a similar mission, but now as the DePaul House
In 1993, Fr. Richard Rock succeeded Fr. Sheridan and served as pastor until 2000, when he was re-assigned. Fr. Vincent Lyons replaced Fr. Rock and served as pastor until 2006. It was during Fr. Lyons’ pastorate that the parish celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding, in 2002. Fr. John Holliday succeeded Fr. Lyons. In 2010, Fr. Holliday was re-assigned, and succeeded as pastor by Fr. Charles Strollo.
In March 2012, the Archdiocese made the announcement that Immaculate Conception Parish will be closing, effective July 1, 2012. The reason provided is that the closing is due to declining membership. The parish, once huge, was down to 250 families, and the number was projected to decline further. While not completely unexpected, the news was devastating to the the current parishioners, the alumni, former parishioners and friends of this grand old parish. The Closing Mass was celebrated on Sunday, June 24, 2012 at 11:00am, followed by a catered social onsite. Approximately 1,200 attended, nearly filling the 1,300 capacity church. It was a very sad day as we bid goodbye to a parish that meant so much to us and was so instrumental in our lives.
Immaculate Conception Church - Closing Mass - June 24, 2012
(photo is courtesy of The Philadelphia Church Project - www.phillychurchproject.com)
For over 100 years, Immaculate Conception Parish has faithfully served the Catholic community of East Germantown. It served witness to the great growth that resulted in the area in the first 50 years of its existence, as well as, the changes that occurred in the last 50 years. Throughout, it never wavered in its mission to serve the spiritual, social, educational and material needs of its faithful parishioners. And, it always set about this mission with traditions of spirit, generosity, vitality, determination and enthusiasm, which were always a part of the fabric and core of Immaculate Conception Parish. It is hard to think this grand old parish is no longer serving the needs of the Catholic flock in East Germantown. But, it lives on in the hearts of those fortunate enough to have been associated with the parish and/or school. They may have closed Immaculate Conception parish, but they can never close the vivid memories and wonderful times we have of this wonderful parish.