Old Saint Joseph's Church
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Old St. Joseph's Church, founded by the Jesuits in 1733, was the first Catholic church in Philadelphia and the only place in the British Empire where the Catholic Mass could be celebrated publicly, freedom of worship having been guaranteed by William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges.
From the small chapel beginnings of Old St. Joseph's, to the founding and staffing of churches, schools, orphanages, a hospital, and missions across Philadelphia, the Jesuits staked their claim to being city builders as well as teachers and priests. The central figure in many of these accomplishments was Rev. Felix J. Barbelin, S.J. (1808-1869), who arrived at Old St. Joseph's from France in 1837. Barbelin remained at St. Joseph's for the rest of his life and served as an indefatigable organizer and a charismatic leader. Barbelin established or promoted a night school for adults in the church basement, as well as St. Joseph's Classical Academy (1840); St. Joseph's Academy for Girls (1851); a school for African Americans (1860); and of course, Saint Joseph's College in 1851.
Little is known about the original 1733 chapel structure. The dimensions are thought to have been 18 x 20 feet. It was almost certainly a house-chapel attached to the residence of Rev. Joseph Greaton, S.J., an English Jesuit. By 1757 the old chapel was no longer adequate to accommodate the number of worshipers, and the second church, 46 x 50 feet, was erected. A Clergy House was erected in 1789 with contributions by Thomas Fitzsimons, a signer of the U.S. Constitution; Commodore John Barry (1745-1803), Father of the American Navy; and banker Stephen Girard (1750-1831), among others. The present church is the third on the site and was dedicated in 1839. Parishioner John Darragh was the builder-architect.
In 1886, major renovations were undertaken to the church by architect John J. Deery. A ceiling painting (oil on canvas), "The Exaltation of St. Joseph into Heaven," was painted by Philippo Costaggini, who also completed the frescoes begun by Constantino Brumidi in the U.S. Capitol Building. Another round of renovations was undertaken in 1904 by architects Walter Francis Ballinger (1867-1924) and Emil George Perrot (1872-1954). Through the 1950s and 1960s other important renovations were carried out in response to the designation of Old Saint Joseph's as a national historic site. The most recent renovations, in 1985, endeavored to restore the interior decoration of the church to the period between 1886 and 1904.
The church structure is uniquely sited and nearly impossible to see from the street. The front wall of the church is a party wall to a neighboring structure and so provides no means of entrance. The church can only be entered through the rectory or one of the two side entrances. One of these entrances is set back behind a gated lawn on Walnut St.; the other, the principal entrance, is approached through a courtyard that opens onto Willing's Alley. This siting was not an accident of real estate but a deliberate attempt by the founding Jesuits to ensure the safety of the first "Romish Chapel" in Colonial Philadelphia. Neither was the siting changed during subsequent rebuildings, since Philadelphia was at the center of the growing anti-Catholic movement at the time of its last rebuilding in 1839.
Today, Old St. Joseph's Church is one of the most beautiful and revered sites in Philadelphia's Society Hill district and an important tourist destination. The building that was constructed to house St. Joseph's College in 1851 serves today as a Jesuit rectory.
Catholic Herald. [n.d.].
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Noll, Ray Robert. "A History of St. Joseph's College, Philadelphia, Pa. Before the Civil War." Manuscript. Archives, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia, PA.
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