The forming of Delaware County, part 5 (churches) – Thomas Willcox

Last week’s column told of early Lutheran, Quaker, Episcopalian, Baptist and Presbyterian churches that were established in Delaware County, dating back to the small log cabin church on Tinicum Island, built by Swedish colonists some years before the coming of William Penn. The other two of the seven major denominations, the Methodist Church and the Catholic Church, also established themselves early in the life of our county.

The Methodist denomination, which has the greatest number of church edifices as well as the largest membership in the county, saw part of its earliest beginnings right in Radnor township. The Radnor Methodist Church on Conestoga road goes back to the primitive days of Methodism in America. As described in a series of articles in this column in November and December, the first meetings were held in “The Mansion House” on Old Lancaster road, the beautiful old James home still standing, and now the property of Mrs. Percival Parrish. In 1784 the first church building was erected on land sold by Evan and Margaret James to Francis Asbury and his assistants. With a steadily increasing membership, both of the Church and the Sunday School, the Radnor Methodist Church has just completed a successful campaign for funds to enlarge the present lovely old edifice, built in 1833 to replace the original structure.

Among other old Methodist churches in Delaware County is the Mt. Hope Methodist-Episcopal Church in Ashton Township, which had its beginning in 1807; the Union Methodist-Episcopal Church in Manoa, organized in 1832. Shortly after the Manoa church was founded, other Methodist churches sprang up throughout the county, including one at Lima, another at Marcus Hook and still another at Upper Darby. The first African Methodist congregation in Delaware county was organized early in the 19th century by a Negro slave, Robert Morris, who met at first with three friends in a private home in Chester. By 1831 they had sufficient funds to build the church now known as Union African Methodist Church. There are now many other African Methodist Churches throughout the entire county with a large aggregate membership.

The first Catholic Masses to be celebrated in Delaware County were those said in the home of Thomas Willcox in Concord in the early 1700’s. The Willcox family is believed to be the oldest Catholic family in all Pennsylvania. Thomas Willcox, who lived in Concord from 1718 until 1779, was the paper manufacturer who established the famous Ivy Mills referred to in a recent article in this column. The number of communicants who met in his home were few in number until about 180, when large immigrations brought more Catholic families.

The chapel which was built in the Willcox mansion and used until 1856, was known as St. Mary’s Church. In that year a new church, St. Thomas the Apostle, was completed and dedicated. Located between Chester Heights and Ivy Mills, it had more than five hundred communicants at this time. However, the very first Catholic edifice to be erected in Delaware county is St. Denis’ Church, built in nearby Haverford township in 1825 and directed by Augustinians since 1853. Chester’s first Catholic Church was St. Michael the Archangel, an imposing edifice built in 1843.

(To be continued)