The Story of St. Michaels

1834 - 1934


By Rev. William J. Boyle
















Old St. Michaels

2nd and Jefferson







The Present Day

1st Chapter


A Symbol

2nd Chapter


Before the Beginning

3rd Chapter


The Beginning

4th Chapter



5th Chapter


Three Days of Horror

6th Chapter



7th Chapter


Courage and Perseverance

8th Chapter


The Disaster

9th Chapter


Peace and Growth











What happened at St Michael’s parish in Philadelphia in April of 1844 is tragic. This is especially so since it also happened to St Augustine’s and St Phillip Neri in South Philadelphia. But looking back on this episode from the year 2008, the thought processes that could engender such hatred and violence seem so remote and foreign that I have difficulty comprehending it.


Religious hatred and racial bigotry are nothing new. Collectively as a nation we are suffering at the hand of latter-day Muslim Fundamentalists in the Middle East which culminated with the attacks of 9-11, and the ongoing wars of retaliation being currently waged. Before this the African Americans among us were certainly the victims of racial bigotry, mainly because they formerly were the slaves of their white overlords, although many generations back. But nobody remembers that long ago, the Irish especially the Irish Catholics were subject to the same religious persecution and bigotry. However in this case their antagonists were members of the various Protestant denominations that had arrived in Philadelphia during and after the era of William Penn. They saw it as their destiny to keep the New World for themselves and to exclude all undesirables.


You see, all significant movements have roots. In this country, the separation of Church and State is the law of the land. In Europe, where both protagonists and antagonists came from, the Catholic Church was definitely intertwined with the various governments and kingdoms, and held in a significant place of honor by the rulers. For example, Ferdinand and Isabella were the patrons of Christopher Columbus. Being a staunch Catholic, Isabella had a confessor who was none other than Tomas de Torquemada, whose mortal remains lie in the Cathedral of Avila. Tomas de Torquemada, a Dominican Friar, was also the Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition.  About 40 years after the death of Ferdinand, Philip II became King of Spain. During his reign he built el Escorial about 28 miles from Madrid. This compound was both a palace and a monastery. Although the Spanish examples are an extreme, other countries in Europe were also infiltrated in like manner. Even to this day, medieval cathedrals throughout the continent are supported and maintained by public funds, and justifiably so because they are part of their heritage. In the case of the Irish, antagonism between Catholics and Protestants has been going on since 1200AD. Properly speaking, the conflict started between the Irish, most of whom were Catholic originally, and the invading English, most of whom were Protestant. As time passed, the invasion with its battles and consequences were transformed into a political and religious conflict, but it did not start that way. Oliver Cromwell in particular had a special hatred for Irish Catholics. At present the “Irish Troubles” appear to have settled down, and their economy is booming, but in the early 1800’s this was not the case to be sure.


And so, the immigrants to this country transported with them the baggage of their upbringing, and their personal histories and prejudices. Although the Irish issue is different than on the continent, to some extent the events at St Michael’s Church mark a significant confrontation between Protestant and Catholic, in a new country where the doctrine of the Separation of Church and State is in effect, and the Catholic church has little or no influence in political life, at least not as it had in Europe.


Since Vatican – II, the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant sects has improved substantially, so much so that if you did not know the history it would be difficult to imagine how this state of affairs could have occurred. But the sad fact is that it did, right here in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. To some extent The Story of St. Michaels is yellow journalism of the first water, and I thought twice about publishing it in this venue suspecting that my Protestant friends would find it offensive. But Fr. Boyle’s book was written in 1934, long before the rapprochement which followed 30 years later. The tone is highly militant so bear that in mind.





The present day



At one time, St Michaels was one of the most important parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It was one of the two “Mother Churches” in the area, the other being St John the Baptist in Manayunk. By Mother Church I mean that all other parishes now in existence were at one time split off from them or their descendants, St Mike’s launched most of the parishes to the north and east, while St Johns to the north and west including the western suburbs. Also, when the Christian Brothers came to Philadelphia, St Michael’s parish was chosen as their venue. And here they founded schools of higher education that were destined to become LaSalle Prep School and LaSalle University. LaSalle Prep is now located in suburban Cheltenham Township, and LaSalle University is now in the Olney section of Philadelphia.


Since the 1960’s there has been a mass-exodus of parishioners to the “greater northeast” part of Philadelphia and to the suburbs, leaving St Mike’s high and dry. It has been a struggle for survival, with barely 300 parishioners on the books, as opposed to several thousand in years gone by. Contributions by Catholic Church attendees are a hit or miss affair. The common attitude is to throw a few dollars into the basket on Sunday and since most churches have five or six masses each weekend and the church is usually packed, this practice was sufficient. Our Protestant brethren know better. They have been dealing with the problem of limited church-going attendance for years, and so it is not uncommon for them to put checks for more that one hundred dollars in the basket each Sunday.


St Mikes has been feeling the pressure. For years it slipped into the hopeless muddle which plagues many inner city churches. All those nice institutions that Fr. Boyle talks about in his book have eroded away to oblivion. The school is gone, closed years ago because of a lack of funds. The school building now sits empty and unused, standing next to the church. The community of nuns that lived in the convent across the street is gone, although there is one bright spot. The dedication of a few of the remaining nuns has rekindled the school, albeit on a much limited basis. The convent has partially been recycled to accommodate students from the neighborhood and these have proven to be excellent scholars who are a credit to the parish.


The church building itself is a moderate sized structure with room for about 500 persons in the pews. There is a balcony which surrounds the nave on three sides with room for additional people, although access is limited. Although the building has had reasonable ongoing maintenance throughout its history, the organ which I played for an extended period of time, is falling to pieces because of lack of maintenance. The artwork in the interior of the church is second to none. When reconstructed after the fire of 1844, the interior was bare. Over the following years the various pastors chose to embellish the church with fresco’s that positively accent the architecture. The result is quite charming. The comment most heard from visitors is “they don’t build them like this any more!”  True, but then this is the result of 150 years of embellishment.


In the midst of all this funk and pessimism there is one bright ray of hope. St Michaels Church is located in Lower Kensington, a few blocks north of Girard Ave. The district just south of Lower Kensington is Northern Liberties, which is undergoing a revival, similar to the district surrounding Old St Josephs, Willings Alley. It has been “discovered” by young adults in part because suburban property values are unaffordable to people just starting out, and because living in the city has a certain charm, especially if your job is there. I am not going to try and speculate on how long it will take for Lower Kensington to revive, but it is coming.


John McEnerney



Figure 1: Interior, Old St Michaels



Figure 2: Interior again, with the lights turned on



Figure 3:  Main Altar and Fresco


Figure 4: Left Hand Balcony



Figure 5: Rear Gallery and Organ


Figure 6: Right Hand Balcony



Figure 7: Fr. Bill Ayres delivering a sermon


Chapter 1