Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 13
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: April 1964 Volume 13 Number 1, Pages 14–17
History of St. Mary's of the Immaculate Conception, Ship Road, Pa.
During the latter days of the 18th century, West Chester was one of the Mission Stations, serviced by traveling missioners, principally based at Philadelphia. The first Catholic Church building was begun in West Chester in 1793. The Church was known as Christ Church. Mass was celebrated at irregular intervals. In 1804, Rev. Patrick Kenny was assigned to this general mission area and he made his home at Rocky Hill, at the residence of Andrew Hearn, where he remained for several years. Under the most trying conditions, he traveled a wide area of what is now Chester and Delaware counties and also into the State of Delaware.
In 1804, Mass was celebrated several times a year (presumably quarterly) at the home of Philip Dougherty, near Downingtown and also at the home of John Shields at Gallagherville, west of Downingtown. These visitations continued until 1851 when St. Joseph's station at Downingtown was established as a mission from West Chester. West Chester had in the meantime become a parish with a resident pastor. Rev. James Morris served the Downingtown area from West Chester, and celebrated Mass monthly at the home of Michael McFadden in the borough of Downingtown. Father Morris began the collection of money for a church building and Father John F. Prendergast, who succeeded Father Morris, proceeded with the erection of a building on the present site of St. Joseph's on Church Street, Downingtown, Pa. Mass was celebrated in this church once a month, and in 1869 it was necessary to double its capacity.
During the pastorship of Rev. James M. McGinn, who was appointed in 1872, St. Mary's of the Immaculate Conception at Ship Road was dedicated, on December 8, 1873. Before the erection of the church, Mass was said in the house of Mr. Owen Daly, at Glen Loch Station, and, previous to that, in the home of Mr. Stephen Morris, Planebrook. As the congregation increased, it was decided to erect a little church. Miss Elizabeth Brazier owned a livery stable on the southwest corner of where the road from Ship Read Station on the Pennsylvania Railroad meets the Lincoln Highway, then known as the Lancaster Turnpike. Miss Brazier made a donation of this property (the stable and a large lot of ground), and the stable was converted into a church and given in charge of the Pastor of Downingtown.
In the course of time, this building was enlarged. Comfortable pews were installed. Miss De Pest generously helped to defray expenses. Later on, Miss Bernadeaux donated two statues to the church, one of St. Joseph and one of the Virgin Mary. A close inspection of these statues reveals that they are of very finely chiseled wood and were made in Germany. In 1886 Rev. Thomas Toner became pastor. He died in 1892. Rev. John J. McAnany was appointed pastor in 1892 and served until 1894. In July, 1894, Rev. James O'Reilly was appointed pastor of St. Joseph's, Downingtown, where he remained until his death in 1913. Under the leadership of Father O'Reilly, in addition to his energetic program of improvement in his own church at Downingtown, St Mary's was renovated and decorated. Stained glass windows were installed and inscribed as memorials.
During this period a further mission station was established at Reilly's Banks, near the Cedar Hollow Quarries, and this was known as St. Thomas. This location is on Morehall Road, below the hill from Valley Store, what is now the Valley Forge Stone & Lime Company. It was also served from St. Joseph's at Downingtown, Mass was celebrated each Sunday at both St. Mary's and St. Thomas, alternating the hours of Mass, so that one Sunday the Mass would be at 8.30 (Early Mass) and the next Sunday at 10.30 (Late Mass). The priest traveled from Downingtown by means of the Chester Valley Railroad which traversed both places, and a parishioner with horse and Wagon stood to transport the priest to his late Mass station. After Mass, until train time, to Downingtown, he enjoyed a welcome breakfast, at noon or thereabouts, at some parishioner's table.
The engineer of the Chester Valley train from Downingtown slowed down at the Ship Road crossing sufficiently to allow the priest to leap to the ground, provided the engineer was in a good mood - and the priest a practiced leaper - otherwise, the engineer rattled on to the regular stop at Planebrook and the priest could walk back! Usually a man with a team was standing by and, if the priest did not make it, he dashed for the Planebrock station to bring the priest back, and the waiting parishioners had another round or so of sociability until "Father gets here." On alternate Sundays he descended at the Cedar Hollow station which was near Reilly's Banks, and after Mass someone drove him back to Ship Road.
In the summer there were many employees from the estates of wealthy people who lived in the country in the summer only. The employers provided transportation for their "help" at least every other Sunday, and some of these Irish domestics contributed magnificently to the support of the church. Most of the employees were of the John F. Lewis estate at Morstein, but there were many others from the Clothier, Scott, and other estates of wealthy folk in the Chester Valley.
In the early days there was a choir ready, able and willing to produce suitable music for any church occasion. Miss Alice Morris did the honors as organist, while her sister, Miss Mary Morris, Miss Annie Gallagher (later Mrs. Wm. A. Ford), Miss Sara Gallagher; (later Mrs. William J. Murray and mother of William H. Murray of Murray's of Paoli) and Miss Mary Gallagher, and others, furnished the music for the Masses and special services.
In 1913 Father O'Reilly died and his successor was Rev. Joseph A. Kelly, a fiery, dynamic Irishman.
In 1915 both St. Mary's and St. Thomas became a part of St. Patrick's parish at Malvern, Pa. on Charming Avenue. The Rev. John H. Martin, who had formerly served as a curate under Father O'Reilly at Downingtown, and, in so doing, had served the two mission churches, became the first pastor of St. Patrick's in Malvern, and the center of activity revolved around the Parish church, with the missions becoming somewhat submerged in the overall effort to build a substantial and beautiful church in Malvern.
With the coming of the automobile and easier and quicker transportation it became easier to concentrate on the mother church, and except, for a hard core of "old timers" whose roots were too deep to dislodge, the activities at Ship Road were limited to Mass on Sundays and perhaps Stations of the Cross during Lent on Friday nights. Both Missions were served by the curate at St. Patrick's, but St. Thomas has long since dissolved into dust-not even the site is marked- but it has been replaced by a church known as St. Joseph's at Cedar Hollow, to serve that area. This church is located on Yellow Springs Road.
Rev. John H. Martin was succeeded by Rev. James C. Devers. In 1942 Rev. John J. Martin came to St. Patrick's as curate and for 17 years he faithfully served the missions of St. Mary's at Ship Road and St. Joseph's on Yellow Springs Road, in addition to his parish duties at St. Patrick's. Father Devers was succeeded by Rev. John A. Barron who is presently pastor of St. Patrick's, Malvern.
On May 22, 1959, the new parish of Sts. Philip & James was erected, with Rev. John J. Martin, St. Patrick's, Malvern as the new pastor. Due to the housing and population "explosions" the area has become a vigorous suburban section, and since 1960 six masses are celebrated each Sunday with other services available on all public occasions.
Little St. Mary's has come full circle since the days when she was the focal point of a strong and active Catholic body, through her eclipse, and around again to where she is the center around which the new parish of Sts. Philip and James revolves.
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