by Neil Nolan
Four minutes before midnight, Dec. 24, 1941, 78 years ago, the massive nave of the Immaculate Conception Church in East Germantown was teeming, its pews filled with neighbors, one or two generations removed from the tenements along the Delaware River and South Philadelphia. They were about to become “the Greatest Generation,” but they didn’t know that, not during that particular Christmas Vigil.
America, asleep on a Sunday morning, had been attacked two and a half weeks before. (Ed. note: In total, 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,143 wounded in the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Eighteen ships were sunk or run aground, including five battleships. All of the Americans killed or wounded during the attack were non-combatants, given the fact there was no state of war when the massive bombing occurred.)
And the young men who, a few years before, had served on the altar, strolled the streets of Chew and Price toward their school, where they pledged allegiance and prayed, had already responded. They embodied the future of this tight parish, and many a tearful good-bye had already been spoken. As the pipe organ aloft struck its first notes, the church was dark, except for the four Lenten candles towering in the apse. What traditionally was a moment of hope was overtaken by dreadful foreboding — loved ones uncertain that their sons, fathers and brothers would return.
The organ continued somberly as a feint glow began to shine from the vestibule. Then two perfect lines of lit candles, each born by boys in white and crimson cassocks, began to move through the main aisle. Their shadows marched in dual procession as giant flanks along the cavernous walls, and receded in the distant rafters. At the rail the flames parted, then reunited in front of the altar, illuminating only the faces the choir, over a hundred strong. The organ paused, and on cue a single boy, not yet 10 years old, stepped forward.
A hush fell as he alone began, a cappella. His tone was high and soft, yet resonant from the first note: “Oh Holy Night, the stars are brightly shiiii-ning. It is the night of our dear savior’s birth.” As if to assuage the fears of his community, he continued with more confidence, his voice rising, crescendo: “A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” Then, in an instant, the lights of the church and the strands of colored bulbs lining the tree and crèche blazed alight in perfect concert. At the same moment, the organ thundered and a hundred young voices soared: “FAAAAALL on your KNEEEES!! Oh HEEEEAR the angels’ voices! Oh NIIIIIGHT divine!”
Our father was the nine-year old boy at the altar. He recounted that story to us the year before his death, after a long bout with Alzheimer’s, at Christmastime in 2012. Despite his confusion, he assured us that, when the lights came to life, they revealed an entire congregation, hardened men and even stronger women, weeping openly. And, when the choir joined him in this ancient hymn, the Hope of Christmas was reborn in his childhood church.
Regardless of your neighborhood (or even faith), I believe that other readers would associate holidays with their own childhood memories of their religious communities.
Neil Nolen, 55, a native of West Mt. Airy and Holy Cross Parish, lives in Odessa, Ukraine, with his family. A lawyer and alumnus of St. Joseph’s University, Nolen worked for the United Nations in both Kosovo and Afghanistan from 2000 to 2014. Since 2012 he has also been with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which deals with a wide range of security issues such as conflict prevention and fostering economic development. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s he and his siblings worked at 21 West and The Depot in Chestnut Hill. He told us he would like to send Season’s Greetings to the folks back home. He, his wife Snezana and daughter Daria would love to hear from old friends over the holidays! They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rich McIlhenny, a prominent Mt. Airy Realtor, brought this story to our attention. “As I told Neil,” he said, “ironically, my grandmother, Sabine Sonzogni McIlhenny, who lived a block away from the Immaculate Conception Church, was likely in attendance there on Dec. 24, 1941, with my late father in her womb who would be born four months later. She was there with my grandfather, who died in 1956, and my aunts, Eileen and Sabina, who were toddlers at the time! My father was Francis McIlhenny. And then 36 years later, Neil and I would meet playing baseball at the Water Tower and bussing tables at The Depot. We became lifelong friends, and his family became my second family in the 1980s.