Congregants brushed back tears, took photos and talked fondly about memories at Immaculate Conception (IC) Catholic Church on Sunday.
This was for good reason: After 110 years in the East Germantown community, Sunday’s was the final service was held at IC, located at 1020 E. Price St.
The cornerstone of the castle-like church, which went on to appear in the M. Night Shyamalan film “Unbreakable,” was laid in 1875 before officially opening in 1910.
Proposing to stay open
Those assembled, and parish leaders, did not go down quietly.
In a proposal sent to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia a few months ago, IC’s church council stated that their large space would be an ideal setting for merging several parishes.
“We proposed that the other parishes could merge into us,” said Maceo Hood, church council member. “We have room for growth here. This place took 20 years to build. It has 85-foot ceilings. I’d compare it to the [Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul].”
With that plan gaining no traction, Hood said they are now focusing on keeping people connected to church activities so that all of the IC’s “ministries can continue to operate” while merging into nearby St. Vincent de Paul.
Thanks for the memories
Aleta Lee, who attended IC’s school in the 1980s, said all of her children were Baptized there. That lends to a very personal connection.
“This church has been a part of my life for 35 years,” said Lee, brushing back a tear. “They organized a trip for us to see the Pope. We got a bus right here in this parking lot to take us to Washington, D.C. to see him.”
Alan Hagerty of Chestnut Hill and his wife Donna of Germantown were married at IC in 1965. The couple now lives in Fort Washington though Donna said she “never did turn into a suburbanite.”
“We still love to ride through Germantown,” said Donna. “I grew up on Chelten Avenue. There’s nothing like your old neighborhood. I miss being able to walk a few blocks do the delicatessen, a gift shop for cards, things like that. I got my wedding dress at Rowell’s at Germantown and Chelten Avenue.”
Wes Carver attended grammar school and church there and said he has visited for holiday masses over the years with his wife, Ruth. Their son Scott was married to his wife Erica there in 2004.
“I have many fond memories,” said Wes. “It’s a beautiful church and we always had a great community here. I think economic changes have had an impact.”
The family agreed that they’d like to see the Archdiocese focus more on Catholic education.
“If you don’t have children going to Catholic school, then you’re not going to have them going to church,” said Ruth.
“People welcome you here with open arms,” said Erica, who commuted from Flourtown to IC with her husband for three years. “This closing is a reflection that people just aren’t going to church anymore.”
Scott noted that the church had too few parishioners to continue.
“Many people have donated time and money, but it’s just too small to maintain the upkeep,” said Scott, “It’s really sad. This is a piece of history.”
A strong neighborhood bond
A group of neighborhood friends also gathered at the ceremony.
Earle “Dusty” Bray, Patrick “Packy” Lyons and Ray Griffin all recalled growing up in, and around, IC.
“The community revolved around the church,” said Griffin. “We played CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] football together.”
The men recalled a renowned neighborhood rivalry between IC and nearby St. Bridget’s, specifically the time a fight broke out between the parents of players at a 1959 football game.
“We were undefeated and un-scored upon,” said Lyons.
“It was 28 to nothing in the first quarter and that’s when the first punch was thrown. It stopped the game,” added Griffin.
“At the end of the season, the CYO granted a co-championship award to both schools to walk in the parade at Franklin Field,” Bray concluded.
They talked about the annual May Procession, which is a devotion to the mother of Jesus’ mother Mary, and includes a walk around the neighborhood with flowers and banners celebrating her as the “Queen of May.”
A personal impact
An annual church carnival was also recalled; the men say they mowed lawns to save up enough money to buy tickets for amusement rides.
“I’m one of 10 kids,” said Lyons. “My father died when I was 12 years old. The whole community got together to help my mother pay the mortgage. They had a beef and beer for us and in one night they raised $20,000 and paid it off. That’s the kind of community here.”
“It’s as if my past is being dismantled,” continued Lyons. “I’ll drive my grandkids here one day, but who knows what will be here, maybe dust.”
They said the Vietnam War draft of 1969 affected the neighborhood, with thousands of Pennsylvanians drafted.
“The draft was like a vacuum,” said Bray. “Some people didn’t make it back. Some were wounded. It changed things.”
They all agreed that IC was at the core of their community.
“I believe there was a time in Philadelphia that will never happen again,” continued Bray. “It’s like a Camelot.”