Celebrating America and a 183-year tradition in Roxborough

 Manayunk and Roxborough residents are preparing for Thursday's parade through Roxborough. (Sean Smith and Kayla Cook of Philadelphia Neighborhoods/for NewsWorks)

Manayunk and Roxborough residents are preparing for Thursday's parade through Roxborough. (Sean Smith and Kayla Cook of Philadelphia Neighborhoods/for NewsWorks)

For many local residents, the Fourth of July is celebrated with backyard barbecues and time spent gazing at fireworks illuminating the night sky. But in the 21st ward, a longtime Fourth of July tradition goes beyond the hot dogs and sparklers.

For the 183rd year, the 21st Ward Independence Day Parade of Sunday Schools and Churches will serve as the unofficial kickoff to the Fourth of July holiday for residents in the Roxborough and Manayunk area.

This year, 16 local churches will be participating in the parade, which will begin at 9 a.m. on Thursday. The parade route starts at the intersection of Manayunk and Lyceum avenues, and concludes at Lyceum and Ridge avenues. This year, the parade will be led by Wissahickon Presbyterian Church, which will have the honor of carrying the bronze plaque dedicated to the parade’s founder Samuel Lawson.

Roxborough roots 

The honor of leading the parade goes to a different church each year, often corresponding with church milestones. The lead church also gets to choose the theme for the parade. This year, Wissahickon Presbyterian has chosen “His Name is Wonderful” as the theme. Each participating church will be tailoring that overarching theme into its procession at the parade.

Jim Barnes is a parishioner of Wissahickon Presbyterian and said the parade orgiinated when Samuel Lawson, a Sunday school teacher, marched his students up into the woods for a picnic in the 1800s. Over time other churches wanted their students to take part as well and it grew from there.

While the event was originally intended for Sunday school students, this year marks the 106th time that churches have joined the Sunday schools in the parade march. Barnes said the parade has become a major event for local churches, so much so that he recalled a time when kids would ask him “Where in the Bible does it mention the Fourth of July?”

Father Kirk Berlenbach is the rector at another participating church, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. He recently spoke about just how important the parade tradition has become.

“I was told when I was interviewing for the position here that I needed to make sure that I was around here for the Fourth of July, that it was very important.”

Father Berlenbach added that the parade has the special feel of a small town tradition, “like Mayberry in Philadelphia.”

Along the parade route 

Caroline Kerper has lived along the parade route on Lyceum Avenue for the last 58 years and looks forward to the event each year.

“It’s a fun day and it’s good for the people in the community to get back together and see people that they haven’t seen since the year before.”

Kerper said she usually has family over to watch the parade go by from her front porch. She added that many people set up chairs on either side of Lyceum Avenue to watch and cheer as the parade moves past.

When the parade concludes, many of the churches then continue Lawson’s tradition by hosting picnics at local parks or on church grounds.

Father Berlenbach of St. Timothy’s said that this year they will be hosting a picnic on their grounds following the parade which will feature local barbecue and home brewed beer.

The parade is organized each year by the 21st Ward Fourth of July Association.

Sean Smith and Kayla Cook are Temple University students.  This piece was produced in collaboration with WHYY NewsWorks. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.