A PARISH WITH STRONG FOUNDATIONS
A BRIEF HISTORY OF IMMACULATE CONCEPTION PARISH, JENKINTOWN
On Aug. 8, 1857, the then-Bishop of Philadelphia -- the man who was to become St. John Neumann -- set into motion the place, the structures, the people, and the spirit which we have come to know as Immaculate Conception BVM Church.
Jenkintown was a town that had sprung up around Sarah Jenkins’ Tavern which in the 1700’s had been a stagecoach stop for travelers between Philadelphia and New York. By 1857 Jenkintown was an important juncture on the North Pennsylvania Railroad which stretched from Philadelphia to Bethlehem. Many families had made their home in Jenkintown and Bishop Neumann instinctively knew that this center of activity must be nourished by the Church. A financial depression, the start of the American Civil War, and the death of Bishop Neumann all conspired to slow the plans for a new parish in Jenkintown.
By 1863, however, Bishop James F. Wood had purchased land for the new church from William Cottman of Abington Township. “Saint Mary’s Congregation” of Jenkintown became a mission to St. Joachim’s Church of the Frankford section of Philadelphia. The congregation began meeting and celebrating Mass in the Jenkintown Lyceum. Within three years the ranks had swollen, and partial funds were developed for a new church.
The cornerstone of “St. Mary Major” was laid on July 21, 1866. As reported in the Catholic Standard, “Special trains were run on the North Pennsylvania Railroad early in the afternoon, and carried the bulk of the concourse to within a short distance of the ground , which is situated on a gentle eminence on the main street, and at about the center of the town”. Coins and a scroll documenting the dedication were placed in the cornerstone. The Rev. Thomas Toner became the first pastor of the infant parish.
Father Toner, at the age of 26, threw himself into the strenuous work of raising the funds and building a new parish. He raised money in whatever way he could. He was a dynamic and entertaining speaker and lecture fees from his speaking engagements helped build the parish program. One report in the Catholic Standard notes a lecture by Father Toner on “The Patriotism of Ireland and her Fidelity” and further states that the “known ability of the lecturer and the interest of his theme, particularly at the moment, ensure a large audience and an entertained and instructed one”.
Father Toner was a magnet and a fundraiser role model. On July 5, 1868 a beautiful new church, now named Immaculate Conception, was dedicated to the work of God -- with $97.50 left in the parish accounts! He continued finishing touches on the church and built a rectory (which later became the convent) next to the church. His efforts took their toll on his health and so he resigned as pastor in an effort to regain his health, which he never really did.
During the pastorate of his successor, Father William Kean, Jenkintown, formerly a part of Abington Township, was incorporated as a borough on Dec. 8, 1874. Immigrants, predominantly Irish, expanded the parish and it continued to grow in souls and physical plant. He presided over the installation and dedication of the organ in June 1877.
Father John Mellon worked on improving the buildings and the burgeoning population prompted new fundraising initiatives such as the Fair. He was also involved with civic committees in the Borough. Never robust, he died just short of his 35th birthday.
An addition was made to the rectory and Sunday school was established under Father Thomas Power’s tenure as pastor.
It was Father Joseph Strahan who brough electricity to the church in 1894. A one-story school was constructed behind the church and Immaculate Conception School was opened in 1895. Father Strahan invited the Sisters of St. Joseph to serve the parish, which they did from 1898-1987. The rectory was converted into a convent and a new rectory was built on the other side of the church. Parish societies increased and the bell was installed in the tower.
By the second decade of the 20th century, the school had been expanded with extra classrooms and an assembly hall used for basketball games, dances, and other parish activities. The church, now 60 years old, was given a “face-lift.”
Adversity, however, was just ahead. World War I took its toll on the country, the borough, and the parish. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed thousands in the Philadelphia region. The teaching Sisters from Immaculate Conception served as valiant nursing volunteers at the new Abington Hospital .Then, on Feb. 1, 1928 a devastating fire destroyed the church structure that had been so lovingly put in place by several generations of religious and lay parishioners. The total damage was estimated to be more than $100,000 at the time. The parish was facing a loss of over $1,000,000 in today’s currency. The end of Immaculate was in sight -- but not accepted.
On Feb. 10, Father John Cavanagh, the 66-year-old pastor, met with more than 600 parishioners in the Embassy Theater on York Road. Within four weeks, subscriptions ranging from $25 to $5,000 and totaling $102,000 had been received. The school children added $1,000. Soon the debris was cleared away and a new church had been rebuilt within the side walls of the old. Father Cavanaugh, who had poured himself into the work of rebuilding, was sickened and passed away just months before the project completion. On Sept. 22, 1929, on the eve of the great depression, a new fire-resistant structure built of steel and stone was dedicated to the work of God and the support of his people at Immaculate Conception.
It was Monsignor Thomas McNally, the parish’s longest-serving pastor, who was to finish the work of completing the church interior, installing windows and fixtures, and a new organ. Msgr. McNally was appointed the Vicar General of the Archdiocese in 1952 by Cardinal O’Hara, and during the Cardinal’s final illness bore the burden of Archdiocesan administration, as well as pastoring an active and thriving parish. Over the 38 years he was pastor, the new three story school was built, the school yard was extended, and the Church Universal went through the renewal and reform to which she was called by the Second Vatican Council.
The spiritual and liturgical reform continued to be implemented by Msgr. William Flatley. The church got a fresh coat of paint and new lights. The church windows were repaired, and, most significantly, the altar was moved away from the wall so that the priest now faced the people at Mass. After the Sisters of St. Joseph left IC Convent, the Grey Nuns were invited to occupy it. The old Borough Hall, behind the school, was purchased and demolished, to expand the school yard. Msgr. Flatley encouraged the social life of the parish, set up the Home and School Association, and was proud to have a hand in organizing the JIFS (Jenkintown Interfaith Seniors).
Upon the retirement of Msgr. Flatley, Father (later Msgr.) John Conahan was appointed pastor. Continuing the work of Vatican II and the newly promulgated Code of Canon Law (1983), The Pastoral Council was formed, and the laity were appointed Special Ministers of the Eucharist. There were physical improvements as well: a ramp was added to the church for those with mobility issues, the sanctuary was extended, and the chapel was built. The parishioners came together to form committees to implement a year-long celebration of the 125th anniversary of Immaculate Conception Parish in November 1990.
Msgr. Conahan retired in 2010 and was succeeded by Msgr. David Diamond. During his tenure, plans were made to install an elevator from the parking lot level to the church, an overall project called the “Sacred Heart Entrance.” The walls of the church were also resealed with stucco. In a bittersweet moment, reflecting both death and resurrection, local parishes, including Immaculate Conception, merged their grade schools; at the same time, however, our Pre-Kindergarten was born.
In June 2017, Father Joseph Howarth succeeded Msgr. David E. Diamond as pastor. He completed the elevator project, had an accessible bathroom installed and a “bridge” area to the rectory. The doors of the church received some much-needed attention. His personal love of gardening has beautified the grounds and gift for decorating keeps the church seasonally appropriate. His constant presence, sense of humor, and pastoral approach have served the parish well during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic.
And so, from the beginning, the People of God in Jenkintown have rallied around their shepherds, and with them continue to build up the Kingdom of God on earth, sharing their gifts of time, treasure and talent. The names of many are well-known, while others are lost to the pages of time. However, their legacy stands on West Avenue today!
You are invited to become a part of our continued story!