by Pete Mazzaccaro
In 1855, the nation was still bitterly divided over slavery. One of the biggest news stories of the time was the rescue of Jane Johnson, the slave of Col. John H Wheeler, a North Carolinian who was the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, from a ferry in Philadelphia.
It was in those pre-Civil War years that a Chestnut Hill Quaker named Joseph Middleton, who had recently converted to Catholicism, purchased land on Chestnut Avenue (now Chestnut Hill Avenue) to build Our Mother of Consolation Church.
“He had been trying to build a church for some time with the help of Bishop John Neumann but was told there wasn’t enough money to build a church,” said Pat Burt, an OMC parishioner who is on a committee planning a celebration of the church’s 160th anniversary on the weekend of Nov. 7 and 8. “He got a group of parishioners to do the construction and started working on the building [once he had the land]. The cost of the original building was $14,500. Most of the labor was donated.”
The first pastor of the church was the Rev. Dr. Patrick Moriarity, an Augustinian who was serving at St. Augustine Church at Fourth and Vine Streets in Philadelphia. That church is still there and dates back to 1796 – though the first chapel burned down and was rebuilt in 1848.
And so OMC, as it’s commonly known in Chestnut Hill, was a community effort. It was an extraordinary thing at a time when Catholics were not welcomed in any part of Philadelphia with open arms. But it seems perfectly in keeping with the parish’s place in Chestnut Hill today.
“The parish began before the Civil War, in a time when our country was in great strife.” said OMC’s current pastor, Father Bob Bazolli. “We began in a time when Catholics weren’t necessarily welcomed in Chestnut Hill. We’ve been here through good times and bad times, for the community and for our church. And through all of that we’ve remained consistent.
“We have become such a part of this community. We have built great relationships with other congregations and with the whole community.”
The entire community, parishioners past and present – all are invited to attend a series of Masses that will be held, beginning with a vigil mass on Saturday, Nov. 7, at 4:30 p.m. Each Mass will conclude with a reception. Every Mass on Sunday will follow suit, and the 11 a.m. Mass will be led by Philadelphia Bishop Timothy Senior. Other Sunday morning Masses will be held at 7:30 and 9 a.m.
Each reception will be stocked with donations from more than a dozen local businesses. Acme Markets, Flourtown, A Taste of Philly, Baker St. Bread Co., Bredenbeck’s Bakery, Bruno’s Restaurant, Chestnut Grill, Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop, Giant Foods, Flourtown, Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant, McNally’s Tavern, Night Kitchen, Pocono Pro Foods (local owner), Primo Hoagies, Ristorante Toscano, Roller’s Flying Fish and Tavern on the Hill all donated food to the church.
“Its really incredible,” Burt said of the donations. “It’s just amazing the kind of reception we got.”
Bazolli said that the anniversary, coming on his 11th year as pastor, finds the church in a particularly strong place. He added that church membership has experienced “tremendous growth,” and the parish school, which was founded in 1862, was just recognized as a national Blue Ribbon School.
In a time when Catholicism has been marked more often by parish and school closings and dwindling members, Bazzoli credits OMC’s growth with a commitment to building bridges and welcoming both parishioners and non-parishioners. The church adopted a Pastoral Plan this year, outlining its ambitions around this vision.
“We want to live out our discipleship to Jesus Christ in a positive way,“ Bazolli said. “With sensitivity and by being accepting, we can put into practice the very powerful message of Pope Francis to embrace each other and all people.”
The last thing that will happen to mark the 160th anniversary will be a tree planting. The new tree will replace an old one at the entrance of the parish school that needs to be come down. In 2005, the church did the same with a tree planting ceremony that replaced an old tree near the parish hall.
“Everyone will have a chance to be part of the process and add a little dirt to the tree with a shovel,” Bazolli said.
It’s a chance for current parishioners to add something to the church grounds which could be there in another 160 years.