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Chester County Press

St. Patrick Church: The beating heart of a small town

06/19/2019 07:55AM ● By J. Chambless

The church sits as the centerpiece on Meredith Street in Kennett Square. (Photo by Chris Barber)

By Chris Barber

It’s more than mere coincidence that St. Patrick Church in Kennett Square bears the name that is so closely associated with Ireland, as well as the holiday that honors that country. This church was founded largely by Irish immigrants, and the congregation still celebrates those Celtic roots.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of its founding and the first Mass on Dec. 25, 1869, the congregation has planned a series of festive events throughout 2019.

This anniversary is piggybacked somewhat on a previous celebration. St. Patrick’s Father Chris Rogers said that when he came to Kennett Square in 2015, he was aware that they had marked the 125th anniversary in 1994, and that the 150th -- the Jubilee Year – was upon them shortly. With that in mind, he appointed a committee of two – Bert Bertrando and Horace Scherer – to put together events and leaders for the coming year of activities.

“They really put it out there, and the parishioners were able to get on board,” Rogers said.

The festivities began last December 2018 with a concert by an Irish tenor. After that, the new year came, and the events proceeded in earnest. In January, the kickoff Mass included a visit by Bishop McIntyre. In March, there was a St. Patrick’s Mass plus parish pep rally. April came with a pilgrimage to Ireland taken by 25 members. That was followed in May by T-shirts for the Kennett Run, and a picnic/school reunion in Anson B. Nixon Park.

The trip to Ireland was especially memorable, Rogers said. “It was a social/pilgrimage experience. There was an excitement going into it. The parishioners in Ireland and our parishioners were able to pray our parish prayer together … and, of course, there was the Irish food and the pubs.”

The May picnic in the park and school reunion also brought out high spirits that were highly visible to the organizers Terry Forte, Jo Beth Thompson, Phyllis Smith and Anne Williams. It attracted about 500 people and featured a barbecue and Mass on the green. “The volunteerism was outstanding,” Williams said. “People just kept coming and offering to help.  All this would not have been possible without the volunteers.”

Now, the church has more events in the wings. There will be a baseball day at the Phillies in June. In July, there will be a family movie night outside. In August, the Kennett YMCA will open its doors free to all St. Pat’s members. In September, they will have a presence at the Mushroom Festival as well.

In October, Rogers and the committee members have high hopes for the Oktoberfest on the green behind the church. In the past few years, they have done a variety of things in that month, including pumpkin sales and an autumn picnic.

This year, the summer picnic committee women tossed around ideas for the autumn fest, including initiating pumpkin carving. Given that the church lawn is in the middle of town and within easy walking distance of many people, the women thought that a carving event would be popular.

Rogers and the church members are also especially excited about hosting the Kennett Square pre-Thanksgiving ecumenical service. Members of all the churches in town are invited to join and give thanks, regardless of their faith, on Nov 24. This annual service is rotated among with local churches every year, and St. Patrick hosted it last year. But in view of their Jubilee Year, they have been given the honor of hosting it this year as well.

St. Pat’s will wind up the 150-year festivities with a big memorial Mass and banquet at the Mendenhall Inn during December.

Rogers said that St. Patrick Church is a constant partner with other borough churches, including service to the food cupboard and Family Promise. “In a small town, the spirit of the Lord can start as caring for the poor, Thanksgiving Day together or a parade,” he said. “[Religious] distinctions don’t define who we are.”

St. Patrick was originally founded by Irish Catholics who came to America to work in DuPont’s Hagley plant. In time, more people from Ireland moved to Kennett Square to work at the S&M Pennock Company that made farm and industrial machinery.

 In search of housing, many of them settled on the south side of Kennett Square and started having services in people’s houses. They were served by clergy from St. Agnes Church in West Chester, who came on horseback to provide mission Masses, according to Williams, whose ancestor, a Mr. DeWire, was one of the founders.

Through the years arrived workers from Italy, who came to mine the stone in Avondale, then farmers who grew mushrooms and the labor force that came from Puerto Rico and Mexico to pick them. A large number of these workers brought with them a Catholic heritage.

In 1868, the original settlers set out to build a church on land where the current S-curve of South Street bends at Lafayette. Although the building wasn’t completed, they celebrated their first Mass on Christmas of 1869, and thus began what has become the second largest Catholic congregation in Chester County 150 years later, with a mix of congregants from many backgrounds.

Joseph Lordi, author of the historical postcard book, Greetings from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, said the original structure of that first church still stands at the location and has been turned into houses.

In 1874, Father James Kelly was the pastor in Kennett, Oxford and West Grove. In 1879, Father John O’Donel became the first resident pastor, at which time St. Patrick parish was organized. He was resident pastor until 1910, according to Greetings from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

On Aug. 9, 1908, a newly built church on the southwest corner of Lafayette and Cypress streets was dedicated. The new church facility was made of Avondale limestone in the Gothic style and its stained glass windows were made in Munich, Germany. It was built by Thomas Grady, with Corcoran Brothers of West Chester in charge of the stonework. The rectory was also completed in 1908. The school was opened in 1922, the book reports.

As the years have gone by, weather and time have taken a toll on the church. “It was renovated 25 years ago. We realized it was in need of painting, among other things. So in our discussions of painting we took it even further. We planned a total renovation of the church. Which is now going on,” Rogers said.

He added that when the church reopens, the congregation will see newly painted walls, new lighting, a new floor and a restored altar. “The building itself is really in very good condition otherwise,” he said.

Currently, the church has been holding its Sunday services in Kennett High School. Williams said school officials have been gracious hosts for the church, allowing them to store equipment and accessories for the services at the school during the week.

Reflecting on the present and coming activities of the Jubilee Year, Rogers said, “The church is loaded with heroes. That’s what we’re celebrating this year -- the presence of God with us.”