St. Katharine’s Parish history

A recent column showed pictures taken more than 50 years ago, of property on Aberdeen avenue which has since come into the possession of St. Katharine’s parish. The house on the northwest corner of Windermere and Aberdeen avenues now serves as a convent for the Sisters of the school faculty. The writer has thought it might be interesting to follow this with a brief history of the early days of St. Katharine’s Church itself. An especially interesting account appears in “Rural Pennsylvania,” by the Rev. S.F. Hotchkiss, published in 1897.

St. Katharine’s parish was established June 7, 1893, by the Most Rev. Patrick J. Ryan, Archbishop of Philadelphia, who appointed the Rev. Matthew A. Hand, assistant priest of the Church of the Assumption, Philadelphia, to assume spiritual charge of Roman Catholics living in the Wayne area. At the same time, Father Hand was given charge of St. Monica’s, then a mission church in Berwyn. Up to this time, all Catholics of this area were under the jurisdiction of the Augustinian Fathers of Villanova, and attended Mass at the parish church of St. Thomas of Villanova.

On the 20th day of June, Mass was celebrated in the Wayne Opera House, and for five Sundays afterward, the congregation continued to attend Mass in this public hall. In the meantime, a temporary chapel of frame was being constructed. This chapel was on the northwest comer of the present site, and was dedicated July 30, 1893. Then a plot of ground, 150’ x 200’ was donated by A.J. Drexel and G.W. Childs, upon the condition that a handsome stone church, costing at least $25,000 should be erected there within a period of three years. To comply with these conditions was no easy task with a congregation which, including men, women and children, did not exceed 300.

Satisfactory plans for the new church and rectory having been designed by H.A. Roby, of Lebanon, and a favorable bid having been received for the construction, ground was broken for the new structure on April 16, 1895, and the cornerstone of the church edifice was blessed and laid the following June 9, Archbishop Ryan officiating. The rectory was completed by the end of the year and was formally occupied by the rector on January 2, 1896.

The author of “Rural Pennsylvania” adds a brief notice from the “Catholic Standard and Times” written for the August 22, 1896, issue, concerning the Rev. Matthew A. Hand, who was described as “the zealous young rector of the infant parish.” Born in Philadelphia in 1860, Father Hand was ordained to the priesthood on January 11, 1885, by Archbishop Ryan. His first mission was St. Dominic’s Church, Holmesburg. Later be was transferred to St. John’s, going from there to St. Agatha’s and thence to the Assumption, where he served until June 7, 1893, when he was appointed pastor of the new St. Katharine’s parish.

Of the situation and appearance of St. Katharine’s, this same article in the “Catholl\ic standard and Times” states, “The building stands on the southwest comer of Lancaster and Aberdeen avenues. It is of Gothic design, with clerestory windows. The stone used in its construction is of a peculiarly pleasant shade, known as Conestoga pink sandstone, and has never before been used in any structure in this section of the state. The architectural features of the church, and of the adjoining rectory, and the perfect harmony and blending of colors have elicited words of praise from all who have viewed the building.”

Raising $25,000 at the turn of the century was no easy task for a young pastor, whose congregation included very few, if any, wealthy members. However, in addition to the willing family members, the parish numbered a large group of men and women who were employed as domestics, gardeners, chauffeurs on neighboring estates. It has frequently been said that the sacrifice of these members played a conspicuous part in the building of the new church. One of the large sanctuary windows depicting St. Zita was installed in their honor and in appreciation of their efforts.

Fearing that sufficient funds could not be raised by parish means, Father Hand undertook the wearying task of obtaining help by weekly visits to other parishes of the Archdiocese, with personal pleas to the members of those congregations. His fund-raising efforts were so successful, that when his successor, the Rev. Joseph F. O’Keefe, was appointed in 1901, the parish was entirely free of debt.