On May 22, 1953, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, John O’Hara, announced the establishment of a new parish dedicated to Saint Joseph, the patron of the Universal Church, to be situated in Cheltenham Township in Montgomery County. The new parish would be made up of parts of Holy Angels and Saint Helena in Philadelphia and Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Cheltenham.
At the same time as Archbishop O’Hara announced the establishment of Saint Joseph Parish, he also announced the appointment of the founding pastor, Rev. Francis J. Hennegan, then assistant pastor at Saint Gabriel Church in Philadelphia. Father Hennegan would assume the arduous task of starting the new parish on Friday, June 12, 1953.
The first priority for the new pastor was to secure a place to celebrate the Eucharist for his parishioners These early days of the parish were anxious ones since there was no place in the parish to accommodate a large number of people for Sunday Mass. The then pastor of Saint Helena, Father Harron, said that the parishioners of Saint Joseph were welcome to use the parish hall for Sunday Masses. The first Sunday Mass for the parishioners of Saint Joseph was celebrated in Saint Helena Parish Hall on July 26, 1953. How proud were the members of the new parish attending their first parochial Mass, especially the group of men and women who worked the previous Saturday sweeping, scrubbing and cleaning the hall; how proud they were when the Altar Stone was carried from Saint Helena Rectory, the Altar was set up and the chairs arranged. This was an experience that was unforgettable for these pioneers of Saint Joseph.
Every Saturday evening afterwards a group of men would meet Father Hennegan at St. Helena Parish Hall around 11:15 to sweep, scrub and prepare the hall for Sunday Masses. For a few hours Saturday evening into early Sunday morning, the hall that had been used for dances for young people would be prepared as a fitting place to receive Jesus, the Bread of Life. Sunday Masses were at 7:30am, 9am and 10:15am.
In the beginning days of the parish, Father Hennegan was living at Saint Ambrose Rectory while Saint Joseph’s first Rectory at 101 Hilldale Road was being built. However, Father Hennegan was a man who wanted to be near his people, so he accepted the very generous offer of Mr. James McCann, a member of Presentation B.V.M. Parish and a close friend, to make his own the McCann home at Tookany Parkway and Jenkintown Road until Saint Joseph’s Rectory was built.
Excerpts from the Saint Joseph Church, Cheltenham, Silver Jubilee Memorial Book
(written in 1978 by Rev. John B. DeMayo)
Next week: The First Parish Meeting