A PARISH WITH STRONG FOUNDATIONS
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 stage coach 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!
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. A rectory and convent were built. Spiritual, social, athletic, and cultural societies were organized. Electricity came to the church in 1894. A one-story school was constructed behind the church and Immaculate Conception School was opened in 1895. By the second decade of the 20th century the school has been expanded with extra classrooms and an assembly hall used for basketball games, dances, and other parish activities.
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.
The parish began a year-long celebration of its 125th anniversary in November 1990. In June 2017, Father Joseph Howarth succeeded Msgr. David E. Diamond as pastor.